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Bus crash investigation will explore numerous safety factors

State and federal investigators probing the cause of the fiery collision between a FedEx big rig and a charter bus in Northern California will delve into a wide range of factors from the health and rest of the truck driver to emergency exits and fire protection for bus passengers.

"This is a very significant and unfortunate tragedy," said Jim Hall, a transportation safety consultant and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The NTSB is going to have its hands full on this one."

Although the cause of the accident has yet to be determined, Hall and other safety advocates say it could focus new attention on the NTSB's efforts to improve bus safety and the behind-the-scenes battle over safety standards for motor coaches and other commercial vehicles.

The crash occurred about 5:40 p.m. Thursday when a FedEx Freight truck and double trailer crossed the median of Interstate 5 near Orland and collided with a Silverado Stages charter bus carrying 48 people, including 44 Southern California high school students on their way to Humboldt State University. Authorities said 10 people were killed and 33 were hurt.

As fire and smoke spread through the bus, survivors said panic-stricken passengers shoved each other in a scramble for the emergency exits. Others smashed windows to escape.

Bodies were found within the middle and front of the bus, and two corpses were on the ground, said Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones. California Highway Patrol officers said it remained unclear whether the FedEx driver, who was killed, had fallen asleep, experienced a medical or mechanical problem, or was somehow forced across the highway.

Representatives of Silverado and FedEx Freight declined to comment on specifics of the accident, but said the companies are cooperating with investigators and extended condolences to victims and their families.

NTSB officials, who arrived at the crash site Friday morning, will look into the condition of the vehicles involved, the safety of the highway, the records of both carriers, the truck driver's health and whether he was fatigued due to his work schedule or other factors.

Investigators said they will try to recover electronic modules from the FedEx truck that might have recorded the vehicle's performance. Authorities added they will employ "sophisticated surveying and mapping equipment," along with 3-D diagraming, to reconstruct what led up to the crash.

The bus' safety features, fire protection, emergency exits and evacuation procedures will be examined to determine if efforts to escape were hampered, contributing to the deaths and injuries, the NTSB said.

Increasing the survivability of bus crashes is a major concern of the safety agency, which has repeatedly recommended improvements in bus design. The agency has listed those recommendations among their top safety priorities for years.

Included in those recommendations are stronger bus roofs, motor coach interiors designed to reduce injuries and enough clearly marked emergency exits to facilitate a speedy evacuation.

"Motor coach safety is an important issue," Hall said. "But it doesn't get the attention it deserves."

The Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration, which regulates commercial trucks and buses, has rated the safety records of FedEx Freight and Silverado Stages as satisfactory for the past 24 months.

FedEx's overall safety record is ranked high by federal regulators among comparable companies. Its equipment record is rated average in terms of industry standards. Federal records show that the company's trucks traveled close to 1 billion miles a year over the 24-month period and were involved in 730 crashes, including 246 that caused injuries or deaths. The accident records don't assess blame.

Nationwide, the company has had 3,205 equipment violations over the last year for a wide range of problems, including leaky brake connections, inoperative lights, worn out tires, defective axle parts and cracked or broken wheels, records show.

The bus company, which operates 119 motor coaches and employs 142 drivers, has been involved in two accidents since 2012.

Silverado drivers received three citations: one for failing to have a medical certificate, one for a maintenance violation and one for exceeding permitted hours behind the wheel. There were no citations for unsafe driving.

Records show out of 148 vehicle inspections 43 maintenance citations were issued for such problems as oil leaks, air leaks, improper installation of batteries, inoperable lights and turn signals, brake problems and an unsecured fire extinguisher.

In Washington D.C., transportation safety advocates had sought to get a range of new bus safety standards enacted in the most recent highway bill.

The legislation mandated that new buses would have to be equipped with seat belts, but left open for further study improving fire protection systems and providing for better emergency egress.

"We thought our entire package of recommendations would cost 10 cents per passenger," said Joan Claybrook, a safety advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It was a two-year knock down, drag out fight."

Henry Jasny, chief counsel and vice president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the bus industry fought their efforts to get requirements for fire-resistant materials, better firefighting systems and more rigorous design standards to withstand collision forces.

Currently, large buses lack the energy absorption and protective structures that are routine in passenger cars, Jasny said. "These things are essentially like sardine cans."

Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the American Bus Assn., which represents bus carriers, said motor coaches have "very good" safety records. Manufacturers began installing seat belts, he said, long before federal rules required them.

"We still have a horrible tragedy and we don't want to get ahead of the NTSB," Ronan said. "We don't know what happened here."

dan.weikel@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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