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Thursday, November 8, 2007
Death of Bluffton baseball players in bus accident inspires proposed legislation

Associated Press

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Two U.S. senators, motivated by a bus crash that killed five college baseball players, on Thursday proposed requiring seat belts on long-haul buses.

The proposed legislation also would require changes to bus windows that would help prevent passengers from being thrown out of the vehicles during accidents.

Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, also want better training for drivers, stronger bus roofs that would hold up in rollover accidents and more protection against fire. The legislation would reduce deaths and injuries in bus accidents, they said.

They announced their proposal nearly eight months after a bus carrying Bluffton University's baseball team toppled from an overpass in Atlanta. Five players and the bus driver and his wife died.

Some of those killed or injured were thrown out of the bus and pinned underneath it. Only seats in the first few rows had seat belts.

In 2005, a bus in Texas carrying elderly people fleeing Hurricane Rita caught fire because of an unlubricated wheel axle, killing 23 passengers.

The senators' proposal applies to motorcoaches that travel from state to state, not city buses or school buses.

"There's no question this will save lives," said John Betts, whose son David was among the players killed.

John Betts examined the wreckage of the bus his son was riding in and came away convinced that seat belts would make buses safer.

"Every seat in the bus was intact," Betts said. "If you're in the seat, you're intact."

Bus industry representatives say more testing is needed to determine what would make the vehicles safer.

"If there's a better way to protect people on motor coaches, we're all for it," said Victor Parra, president of the United Motorcoach Association. "Let's look at the best way to do it."

Bus windows have been designed so that they open easily during an accident or fire to allow passengers to escape, he said. And there's no guarantee that those onboard will wear seat belts, Parra added.

Most of the players on the Bluffton bus were asleep and stretched out across their seats or in the aisle when bus crashed. "Obviously, seat belts wouldn't have helped them," Parra said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has for years recommended improved restraint systems, including seat belts, that many experts say could prevent passengers from being tossed around and ejected.

Brown criticized the bus industry for failing to adopt the recommendations made by the NTSB. "They want to stall," he said. "I was hoping they'd want to be more cooperative."

About 631 million passenger trips are made by motor coach each year, according to the American Bus Association. Federal figures show an average of about 23 bus deaths per year over the past decade.