Jim O'Grady of WNYC reports on a rant about bus safety from James Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1984 to 2001 (under three presidents!). Hall is now a lobbyist on Capital Hill, who was paid $80,000 last year to represent Porsche on emissions regulations. O'Grady did not mention Hall's current job, or whether he was speaking for himself or a client.
Hall argues that recent bus crashes, including the gambling bus crash, show that buses aren't safe enough, and that the government needs to legislate stricter standards. He criticizes the American Bus Association for lobbying against (Word doc) a recent "safety" bill. The bus industry and the government, he charges, "have treated the people who ride these buses as second-class citizens and given them second class safety.:
There are lots of problems with Hall's entire line of reasoning, and I may get a few blog posts out of this, but let me focus first on the idea of safety. It's easy for "safety" people like Hall to get so fixated on their jobs that they miss the bigger picture. In this case the bigger picture is that improving the safety of individual rides may make bus rides more expensive, less available or less comfortable. This may convince potential passengers to choose to drive or fly instead, and that in turn may make us all less safe, due to two important principles.
The first is that professional automobile operators are safer than amateurs, and the second is that each additional operator increases the danger. Operating a motor vehicle safely is a difficult job, and training and experience help a driver to overcome that difficulty. A professional driver has a career and a reputation to maintain, while an amateur cares much less about being thought of as a dangerous driver; for some it is even a marker of coolness.
There are also job standards and workplace rules that require minimum levels of competence, sobriety and rest. They are not always followed, but they are stricter and better enforced than the laws regulating amateurs.
The other principle is that driving is a human activity requiring attention and good judgment, and even the best operators occasionally fail. The more operators you have on the road, the greater the chance that any one of them will make a potentially fatal mistake.
If you have five hundred people going from New York City to eastern Connecticut, they could travel in four hundred cars or in twenty buses. It's completely infeasible for all four hundred cars to be driven by professionals, but that would only bring a fraction of the potential safety improvements. The safest would be twenty buses driven by responsible professionals, but if even half of those buses were driven by poorly-trained, irresponsible, stressed and/or fatigued drivers it would still be a lot safer than if the passengers all drove themselves.
Air travel is safer than individual drivers, but still much less safe than buses. Convincing people to choose bus travel over driving not only improves their safety, but the safety of everyone on the road with them.
Many of the proposed bus safety improvements are sound, but the seat belt proposals are not. Long bus rides are already uncomfortable; requiring seat belts could drive away some of the riders who have been attracted by wifi and power plugs. The cost of implementing these and other safety requirements should be taken into consideration. A high enough cost upfront could jack up the bus fare high enough to drive many passengers away, or it could reduce the bus company's profit enough that it would cut back on service.