Deadly Mississippi tour bus crash a stark reminder of bus safety flaws

A Mississippi tour bus crash killed 2 passengers and injured 44 more in November of 2018. The tour bus, traveling across the DeSoto County and Marshall County line, overturned after hitting an icy patch of road. The tour bus operator, Teague VIP Express, is now under investigation for its possible role in the deadly accident.

It is only one in a string of passenger bus accidents that has continued to drive public discourse on the safety of these vehicles. While a cause for the crash has yet to be named, investigators are already looking for similarities to other recent accidents, where driver error or mechanical failures have been named as key contributing factors.

Statistically speaking, modern buses are one of the safest passenger transportation options in the United States. School buses are the safest type of bus, thanks to decades of research, technological advances, and increasingly strict design standards and safety laws.

But despite the impressive safety record, experts warn that there are flaws inherent to the design and nature of these large, tall, and heavy vehicles. Despite the efforts of regulators and bus manufacturers, these flaws are such that technology alone may not be enough to fully protect passengers.

The operator involved in the tour bus crash was flagged for safety violations in 2017

Teague VIP Express is under scrutiny due to the results of a February 2017 surprise inspection carried out by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The inspection covered all three buses in the company’s fleet.

During this inspection, two of the company’s buses were discovered to have worn, welded, or missing steering components. One bus showed signs of having defective axle parts, while another possessed a cracked wheel rim. These flaws would potentially make it difficult, or even impossible, for a bus driver to properly react to emergency situations.

These early warning signs are reminiscent to another major transportation accident in October 2018. A New York limousine service allegedly failed to address serious mechanical issues with a stretch limo SUV. The vehicle in question was involved in a crash that killed the seventeen passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians.

The buses also showed a slew of other, less serious issues, including broken turn signals, oil leaks, and inoperative windshield wipers.

Inspectors determined that three buses were in such a state that they could not be safely operated as passenger vehicles, and they ordered them to be taken out of service immediately. A follow-up inspection in March 2017 found no issues with one of Teague’s buses, but apparently did not address the other buses that failed inspection previously.

It is not yet known if the bus involved in the fatal crash was one of those that failed the inspection 22 months prior. While mechanical failure is a possible factor based on company history, the location of the crash was also the site of three other auto accidents earlier in the day, and a weather advisory was in effect for the area.

Bus crash protection is generally intended to protect passengers from front and rear-end impacts, but for accidents involving side impacts, that protection is less effective.

Modern bus designs are influenced by decades of crash data and research. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are some of the safest vehicles on the road today. This is due in part to stricter design standards that are intended to improve passenger safety during front and rear-end impacts. However, experts warn that all buses remain vulnerable to side impacts.

This vulnerability was demonstrated in New Jersey in May 2018, when a Paramus School District bus made an illegal U-turn on a busy highway. An oncoming dump truck failed to avoid the bus, crashing into its side close to the rear. The impact was powerful enough to tear the entire passenger cabin clean from the chassis, rolling it onto its side. One student and one teacher were killed, and 15 other students were injured.

While the accident clearly had the potential to be far worse, the National Transportation Safety Board cited inconsistent safety standards as being a major factor in the injuries. Their focus was on safety belts, and specifically the lack of an over the shoulder belt for all passengers on the bus.

Safety belt laws for buses are inconsistent. School buses in six states, including California, Texas, and New Jersey, require lap belts. But New Jersey does not require shoulder belts. While investigating other bus accidents, the NTSB found that having both lap belts and shoulder belts could make buses safer, even during side-impact events.

Rollovers are another major threat to buses, and can be induced by a variety of factors

Rollover accidents represent one of the most serious threats to bus passengers. Typically thought of as a result from a side-impact from another vehicle, the Mississippi accident shows that the right road conditions and speeds can be enough to induce a rollover.

The size and weight of a bus is itself a rollover risk factor. At the right speeds during a turn, or due to conditions on the road, a driver can lose control of the bus as it leans to one side. In the worst cases, physics takes over, and pulls the bus onto its side.

Regulations require buses meet structural design standards that take into account the extreme stress the vehicles experience leading up to and during a rollover accident. In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed a new rule requiring newer buses and large tractor trailers be fitted with electronic stability control. This anti-rollover tech rule was anticipated to prevent nearly 1,800 crashes annually. But while similar technologies have proven effective for other vehicle rollovers, they are not capable of completely negating the human factor.

Drivers remain an under-scrutinized factor in bus accidents, with some drivers having extensive histories of speeding and unsafe driving.

Driver conduct is heavily scrutinized after any traffic accident. Bus crashes prompt major investigations by state and federal agencies. If no mechanical issues can be found with a vehicle, the driver’s history often becomes the center of investigation.

While passenger bus drivers are required go through a process to be properly vetted for their jobs, the system isn’t perfect. The Paramus school bus driver responsible for the accident, Hudy Muldrow Sr., was at the time 77 years old. He’d been cited for speeding eight times between 1975 and 2001, and his license had been suspended 14 times over the years.

But this isn’t just a matter of ignorance on the part of management personnel. Muldrow’s supervisors at the school district claimed they were unaware of any potentially disqualifications for driving a school bus. However, records show that those supervisors had lied. In December 2017, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission revoked the bus driver’s endorsement after the state Department of Education decertified them. Legally speaking, Muldrow Sr. had no business being behind the wheel of the bus, but his supervisors lied about his qualifications and allowed him to continue driving. His accident occurred five months after his endorsement was revoked.

While legislators and safety advocates continue to seek ways to make existing and future buses safer, technology may yet hold the key. Bus manufacturers have started to research self-driving buses, which could theoretically eliminate the ‘human factor’ behind the wheel of many accidents. But until such time that self-driving vehicles become the norm, the person behind the wheel, the person supervising them, and the people responsible for maintaining a bus will be central to preventing, or causing, a bus crash.

This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic.

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