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Safety advocates waiting for buses to offer seat belts

WASHINGTON — After a drunk driver on a California highway slammed into a bus carrying passengers to Las Vegas, killing 19, investigators said a lack of seat belts contributed to the high death toll. But 45 years later, safety advocates are still waiting for the government to act on seat belts and other measures to protect bus passengers.

Over the years, the National Transportation Safety Board has repeated its call for seat belts or other means to keep passengers in their seats during crashes involving the large buses used for tours, charters, and intercity passenger service. About half of all such motorcoach fatalities are the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected from the bus.

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The board has also repeatedly recommended stronger windows that do not pop out from the force of a collision and help keep passengers from being ejected, and roofs that resist crushing. Those recommendations are nearly as old as the seat belt recommendation. No requirements have been put in place, though all have long been standard safety features in cars.

Hundreds of motorcoach passengers have died and more have been injured, many severely, since the board made its initial recommendations. Victims have included college baseball players in Atlanta, Vietnamese churchgoers in Texas, skiers in Utah, gamblers returning to New York’s Chinatown, and members of a high school girls’ soccer team en route to a playoff match.

‘‘In 1998, my father was launched like a missile [out] a bus window and landed on his head on pavement. He is now permanently brain damaged and cannot even take care of himself,” one woman wrote regulators, urging them to act. ‘‘This issue has been around for decades and it needs to change, NOW, before more people die or are severely injured like my father.”

In 2009, the safety board said government inaction was partly responsible for the severity of injuries in a rollover crash near Mexican Hat, Utah, which killed nine skiers and injured 43. Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary at the time, promised that the department would act to improve motorcoach safety, including requiring seat belts. Last year, when that still had not happened, Congress wrapped bus safety improvements into a larger transportation bill, which was signed into law. Regulations requiring seat belts on new buses were due in September, but are still under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Other regulations on windows and roofs are due by Sept. 30, 2014, but safety advocates said they doubt the government will meet that deadline since it is less than a year away and regulations have not been proposed, let alone made final.

‘Safety measures like seat belts are neither exotic nor complicated, and they are not new.’

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A spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not reply to a request for an explanation of the holdup.

‘‘Consumers have come to expect seat belts in all motor vehicles; the regulator needs to get with the program and establish requirements that are long overdue. This is a simple issue: restraints save lives,” said Deborah Hersman, acting chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The delays are ‘‘unacceptable,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio and co-author of the bus safety provisions. He noted that ‘‘safety measures like seat belts are neither exotic nor complicated, and they are not new.”

Motorcoaches typically cost between $350,000 and $500,000, according to the American Bus Association. Seat belts would add about $13,000 to the price of a new bus.

Safety advocates compare the buses to commercial airlines, which have fewer deaths and injuries and require passengers to buckle up. The nation’s fleet of 29,000 commercial buses transports more than 700 million passengers a year, roughly equivalent to the US airline industry.

‘‘These motorcoaches carry over 50 people. This is the over-the-road regional airline for some people,” said Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

This year, 23 people have been killed and 329 injured in crashes, according to the organization’s unofficial tally.

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