By Keith Laing
“If drivers are not fully trained, qualified and alert, they should not be trusted with the lives of dozens of passengers," Lautenberg said. "We owe it to the public to make sure only the safest companies are allowed to operate motor coaches — and that only the safest drivers are behind the wheel."
A pair of senators said Wednesday they hoped a bill they co-sponsored that would require seatbelts for bus passengers and stronger roofs and windows would gain some momentum now that Congress is focusing on the issue.
"We're going to pass it now," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said of the bill she is carrying with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
"Everyone in this room, and hopefully Congress, understands the importance of doing something to prevent these tragedies," Hutchison said.
The Senate panel Wednesday heard from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and others about the proposed changes.
Most of the organizations testifying Wednesday agreed with the lawmakers that changes to bus safety needed to be made.
"Those who travel by motorcoach rather than by air do not expect to be treated as second-class citizens," said Joan Claybrook, co-chair of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Consumer.
Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, called bus industry group complaints that installing seatbelts on buses would be too expensive "hogwash."
However, American Bus Association President Peter Pantuso told lawmakers there was only so much they could add to buses to make them safer.
"Without enforcement, it doesn't matter what electronic technology you have," Pantuso said during a discussion of on-board recording devices.
"You've got to enforce the rules," he said.
Pantuso said installing seatbelts on new buses would cost between $13,000 and $15,000 per bus. Adding them to existing vehicles would cost between $40,000 and $45,000, he said.