The National Transportation Safety Board, ending its investigation of a Kentucky school bus accident in which 27 people were killed, recommended Tuesday that more than one-fifth of the nation’s school buses be phased out of use.
The board said the May 14, 1988, crash was clearly caused by “the alcohol-impaired condition” of a pickup truck driver who was driving the wrong way on an interstate when his vehicle collided head-on with the bus.
But it also said characteristics of the 11-year-old bus contributed to the accident’s severity. The vehicle’s unprotected fuel tank, flammable seat covers and partially obstructed rear door were all noted in the report adopted by the board.
The board recommended that states set a date for phase-out of buses not meeting 1977 federal standards. If adopted nationwide, the rule would affect 77,000 school buses, about 22% of those now in use. It would also affect thousands of former school buses used by church groups and other organizations.
The five-member board, after 10 months of investigating the crash near Carrollton, Ky., also asked states to toughen their drunken-driving laws. Specifically, it proposed that states adopt laws that allow police to take away drivers’ licenses, prohibit plea-bargaining in drunken-driving cases and end the practice of giving convicted drunken drivers reduced licensing penalties if they enroll in treatment programs.
Among safety improvements suggested by the board, which can only recommend actions to other federal agencies and the states, were making seat covers out of flammable material, putting more exits on school buses and making their fuel tanks more resistant to puncture in severe accidents.
The board noted that a three-inch tear in the fuel tank on the Kentucky bus led to the fire that engulfed the vehicle. All 24 children and three adults who died were victims of smoke inhalation.
Prevention of Rupture
But the board said it was unclear if such measures would have prevented that rupture, which it said was probably caused by a spring dislodged in the collision.
The bus involved in the crash was built two weeks before the stiffened federal school bus safety requirements took effect on April 1, 1977. It belonged to the First Assembly of God in Radcliff, Ky., and was returning from an amusement park near Cincinnati when the collision occurred.
The driver of the pickup, Larry Mahoney, 35, of Worthville, Ky., is free on $540,000 bail, with a scheduled Nov. 8 trial date on 27 murder charges. He has pleaded innocent.