Crash led to bus safety improvements

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By The Staff


Landmark News Service CARROLLTON — Hundreds of thousands of school buses make multiple trips down American roads each day – carrying children of all ages to and from school, ball games, band meets and out-of-town trips. In the past 20 years, numerous improvements have been made to these vehicles that carry such precious cargo. Most of those changes were spurred by the tragic crash near Carrollton on Interstate 71, May 14, 1988, that killed 27 people returning from a Radcliff Assembly of God outing at King’s Island. Changes included safer seats, more exits and the requirement of all engines to run on diesel fuel, rather than unleaded gasoline. Almost a year after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report that addressed issues stemming from bus construction and safety. The NTSB made safety recommendations that were sent to all 50 states, various church associations and special-activity groups. Recommendations included proposing legislation to make sure that all buses built prior to April 1977 – like the Radcliff bus – were phased out and taken off the road. Today, buses like the one in the crash near Carrollton should be off the roads, according to Kevin Quinlan, chief of safety advocacy for the NTSB. Much of that can be attributed to the success of legal action taken against Ford Motor Co., which manufactured the bus’ chassis in 1977. The chassis was equipped with a Superior body that had 11 rows of seats divided by a 12-inch center aisle. The major flaw of the bus design was an unprotected fuel tank near the front door that held gasoline. The case determined that it was not the impact of the crash that caused the deaths, but the fire that ensued when one of the gas tanks was punctured. "It was the worst case I’ve ever been involved in," said Paul Hedlund, an attorney with the law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, which handled the lawsuit against Ford filed by Janey and Larry Fair. Their daughter, Shannon, was among the victims of the 1988 crash. Janey Fair died Friday from complications with breast cancer. The lawsuit against the bus manufacturer was a highly emotional case, Hedlund said. The Fairs wanted to force Ford to change the way it manufactured school buses. "Some good came out of it," he said. Hedlund explained that the fuel tank was located in the front-right corner of the chassis, thought then to be the safest location. It was away from oncoming traffic, and engineers assumed that any head-on collisions would occur on the left side of the bus. What wasn’t anticipated was that a drunken driver, driving on the wrong side of the interstate, would crash into the front right side of the bus. The impact drove a suspension spring into the tank, causing the vehicle to ignite, Hedlund said. While working on the case, the law firm bought a similar bus and recreated the sequence of events that caused the fuel tank to ignite. "It took 60 seconds to fully engulf the bus," Hedlund said. Fuel tanks on buses now are located in the rear and are encased in a protected compartment between steel rails.