We may never know why the USA Holiday charter bus was going faster than was safe on Interstate 10 in Desert Hot Springs early Sunday morning. The driver can't say because he was one of the 13 people killed when the bus plowed into the back of a big rig truck. Nor was the bus equipped with a "black box" recorder that might have indicated mechanical failure.
What we do know is that if the 43 passengers on the bus — all of whom were either killed or injured, some very seriously — had been wearing seat belts, the toll of deaths and injuries would likely have been lower. Officials said that the victims of the crash were hurled into the air after the impact, and the injuries on their bodies are consistent with striking blunt or jagged objects.
But even if the passengers had wanted to use them, seat belts weren't available on USA Holiday's bus. No law requires the operators of these types of buses to provide them to passengers, though some carriers choose to do so.
It's kind of nuts, considering that everyone agrees seat belts save lives. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended for almost 50 years that charter buses have them, ever since a similarly horrific bus accident in the Mojave Desert in 1968. Seat belts have been required for decades in passenger cars and on airplanes.
New federal standards will require manufacturers of new large buses to include seat belts this year, and that's a good thing — for future passengers. It's meaningless, however, for those who ride in older buses, such as the 20-year-old USA Holiday bus.
There's no requirement that older buses get seat belt retrofits, even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that seat belts could reduce fatalities in rollover bus accidents by as much as 77% and 29% in head-on collisions. NHTSA concluded earlier this year that it wouldn't be worth the cost, which is estimated at between $14,650 and $40,000 per bus.
That's a big expense in an industry made up primarily of small businesses, according to the United Motorcoach Assn. And given that fewer than 10% of bus passengers typically use seat belts in countries that require large buses to have them, according to NHTSA, a mandatory retrofit would probably prevent only a handful of deaths every year.
Still, bus passengers have a right to know the risks — and that they may not be compensated adequately for their injuries if the worst happens. The minimum amount of insurance large bus operators are required to carry hasn't been increased from $5 million for decades, and federal updates have been moving slowly. The state ought to consider requiring bus operators to alert potential passengers before selling them tickets for a trip without seat belts. And federal authorities should explore requiring operators of belt-free buses to carry more insurance to reflect the higher risk.