20th anniversary of deadly bus crash on I-71: Fire prompts bus redesign

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By Laura Hagan

Every day, hundreds of thousands of school buses travel U.S. roadways carrying children to and from school.Buses also carry children and adults on day trips, overnight trips and to out-of-town sports and academic events.In the past 20 years, there have been numerous improvements to these vehicles that carry such precious cargo, and most changes were prompted by a tragic crash May 14, 1988 near Carrollton on Interstate 71.A marker on I-71 serves as a reminder of the school bus used by a church group to carry 67 passengers home to Radcliff after a day at Kings Island amusement park north of Cincinnati.The passengers mostly were teenagers and members of the Radcliff First Assembly of God.Just before 11 p.m., a drunken driver in a pickup truck traveling the wrong direction on the I-71 struck the bus. As a result of the impact, a fuel tank ruptured and the bus caught fire, killing 24 children and three adults.Almost a year later, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report on the crash to address a number of issues dealing with bus construction and safety, including the federal standards regarding the manufacture of school buses, the flammability and toxicity of materials used for seating in the buses, emergency exits on school buses and fuel-system integrity.NTSB offered safety recommendations on these issues, which were distributed to the governors of all 50 states, the state of Kentucky, various private church associations and special-activity groups.The recommendations included proposed legislation to take all buses built prior to April 1977 – like the Radcliff bus – off the road.The primary flawToday, buses like the one in the 1988 bus crash should be off the roads, according to Kevin Quinlan, chief of safety advocacy for the NTSB.Much of that can be attributed to the success of legal action taken against The Ford Motor Co., which manufactured the B-700 chassis in 1977.With 11 rows of seats divided by a 12-inch center aisle, the major design flaw was an unprotected gasoline tank near the front door.It was not the impact of the crash that caused the deaths, but a fire ignited by the punctured fuel tank.“It was the worst case I’ve ever been involved in,” said Paul Hedlund, an attorney with the law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman.The firm handled a lawsuit against Ford filed by Janey and Larry Fair, whose daughter, Shannon, died in the crash.The Fairs hoped to force the manufacturer to change the bus design.In the bus carrying the 67 passengers that night, the fuel tank was located in the front-right corner of the chassis. At the time, it appeared to be the safest location for a fuel tank – away from oncoming traffic.Engineers assumed any head-on collisions would occur on the left side of the bus, Hedlund said.No one anticipated a vehicle traveling the wrong direction on an interstate would crash into a bus head-on and strike the right side of the bus.The impact of Larry Mahoney’s pickup truck striking the school bus drove a spring from the bus’s suspension into the tank, causing the vehicle to ignite, Hedlund said.While working on the case, Hedlund’s firm bought a similar bus to recreate the sequence of events that caused the fuel tank to ignite.“It took 60 seconds to fully engulf the bus,” he said.Fuel tanks now are located in the rear of buses and are encased in a protected compartment between steel rails.According to the firm’s Web site, they spent four years spent investigating the case, and obtained a “substantial” judgment after a six-week trial.Hedlund said Ford does not want to disclose the ultimate result of the case.But, since the case, buses are manufactured differently, and Hedlund said he is proud those changes have been made.“I think everyone is going in the right direction (in making buses safer),” he said. “The aim is to make sure something like this never happens again.”He remembers the devastation at what happened in the accident, and said it is still devastating for him to remember. The fight to change the way buses are manufactured, he said, was necessary.“It was inspiring to be on the forefront of trying to save lives,” he said. “I think the idea of a bus erupting in flames today isn’t likely.”Buses: Safest form of transportation todayElly Martin of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says school buses are now the safest form of transportation on the road today. She said statistics show it’s safer to send a child to school on the bus than to drive him or her to school.A 1998 report on school bus safety by the NHTSA highlights a number of programs that have increased safety for students, bus drivers and other motorists, including the concept of “compartmentalization,” the concept of providing a “protective envelope consisting of strong, closely spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.”Additionally, the report highlights Highway Safety Program Guideline No. 17, which mandates that all school buses be painted yellow and have retro-reflective tape outlining the outside of all emergency exits.Seat belts on busesU.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced last year a proposed rule to extend the height of seat backs from 20 to 24 inches and to require installation of lap and shoulder belts on smaller buses.“Our proposed rule would make children safer, put parents at ease and give communities a clearer picture of how to protect students,” Peters said in a November 2007 news release. “It’s never too late to learn, especially when it comes to protecting our children.”Taller seats prevent passengers from being thrown over a seat in a crash, Peters said.Dr. Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, lobbies at the state and federal level for increased school bus safety, including legislation in California and Texas requiring seat belts.Ross said he hasn’t seen a lot of momentum from the government in terms of mandated safety requirements, but has seen increased awareness from parents and individual school districts around the country.He said about 800 school districts in 2007 chose to enhance bus safety, regardless of government mandates.“More (people) are becoming aware and willing to spend the money, even though it’s not mandated,” Ross said.Safer highway designDoug Hecox of the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration said “a lot” has been done in the past 10 years to make highway travel safer for all drivers.One big improvement visible in Kentucky is cable-median barriers along interstates. The barriers supplement guardrails lining the roadways, and limit vehicles from crossing medians into oncoming traffic.Hecox said there are about 43,000 fatalities a year on highways – in 2006 there were 42,800. But, the road system per capita is safer now than ever before.A custom-built computer hooked up to a car allows officials to test new roads before they are opened, he said.But the test can’t account for what could happen if a driver isn’t paying attention.The highway administration is working with NHTSA to study human factors – from changing a radio station to a driver’s lack of sleep – which can account for much of the danger on the road, he said.Martin of the NHTSA says “driver inattention and distractions” are probably the biggest danger on America’s roads.“It’s a problem of great concern,” she said, noting there are more temptations to distract drivers.Hecox said the highway administration also is working to improve road design to make roads easier tonavigate.He said he hopes new road designs will make entering an exit ramp in the wrong direction “impossible” for drivers someday.Workers are installing additional signage in work zones on highways and relying on the added presence of law enforcement to ensure drivers slow down when passing highway workers.The highway administration hopes to provide law enforcement personnel and first-responders a “rubbernecker drape” to prevent collisions caused by drivers who are trying to see what’s going on as emergency crews work at a crash site.But the biggest improvement, Hecox said, is concentrated efforts on driver safety, including stricter drunken-driving laws and promoting awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.Drivers today are smarter about these issues, he said.What survivors sayAmong the survivors of the 1988 bus crash near Carrollton, opinions differ about the bus’s role in causing the 27 deaths.Joe Percefull, who teaches middle school in Oldham County, said additional emergency exits and other safety features added to school buses have eased his worries.“I feel 100 percent safe on field trips,” he said.Percefull said he believes improved safety standards would save lives, should a similar accident occur today.“I feel pretty confident saying something I went through is never going to happen again,” he said.But Lee Williams, who lost his wife and two daughters in the crash, insists it never would have happened had Mahoney not been on the road in the first place.“It never was about bus safety,” he said. “It was about a drunk driver.”During Larry Mahoney’s trial in 1989, Williams said prosecutors showed him photographs of his loved ones lost in the accident.“Who was this?” the attorney would ask.“That’s my wife.”“What happened to her?”“She was killed by a drunk driver.”That exchange continued, he said, over and over, as photos were shown of his wife, Joy, and their daughters, Kristen and Robin. Williams said of the 14,000 to 15,000 buses similar to the one involved in the 1988 crash, only one caused death.“That’s a pretty good record for a bus that was [considered] unsafe,” he said.Ciaren Madden, who was badly burned in the crash, said she would like to see lawmakers do as much to toughen drunken-driving laws as they did to improve bus safety.“If they put in the effort ee I think our country would be a better country.”Quinlan said Kentucky’s laws mandating the use of seat belts in vehicles that have them has helped save lives, and he also believes the graduated drivers licensing program is a positive step. There are still some things the state could do today, he said.Quinlan said Kentucky’s biggest issue, in terms of improving highway safety, would be revising laws regarding drunken drivers.Quinlan said the NTSB recommended in 1989 that Kentucky enact administrative license revocation for people convicted of drunken driving. The legislation didn’t pass, but Quinlan said he and his staff continue to work with Kentucky and other states to enact its recommendations.With the bus crash in Carrollton, Quinlan said, “It was so clear, so early, that this was something we needed to look into."He said he has met a number of the survivors from the crash and says they are wonderful people.“They’ve been through a lot of trauma and pain, and we should always remember those who died or were injured,” he said. “And we need to take action.”

E-mail us about this story at: lhagan@oldhamera.com.