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Board Meeting: Highway Accident Report - Bus Loss of Control and Rollover, Dolan Springs, Arizona, January 30, 2009 (HWY-09-MH-009) - Chairman's Opening and Closing Remarks, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Board Meeting: Highway Accident Report - Bus Loss of Control and Rollover, Dolan Springs, Arizona, January 30, 2009, Washington, DC

Good Morning. My name is Debbie Hersman and it is my privilege to serve as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. This morning, I am joined by my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Chris Hart, to my right, and Member Robert Sumwalt to my left.

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. Under the 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act, multi-member federal agencies conduct much of their business in open session. Therefore, Board meetings are often called "Sunshine" meetings. While the public is invited to observe the meeting, only the Board Members and NTSB staff will participate in today's discussions. This meeting is also available via live web cast.

I would like to extend a warm welcome to Mr. Andrzej Maciejewski, the Deputy Director, Generate Directorate for the National Roads and Motorways of Poland, who is in our audience. Mr. Maciejewski is studying America's transportation system as part of the U.S. Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program. As I expressed to Mr. Maciejewski before coming down to the Boardroom, it is always a pleasure to meet with our colleagues from around the world. We have so much to learn and share from one another, and I am delighted to have you join us.

Before moving to the highway accident on today's agenda, I would like to first take a moment to recognize that one year ago today, on June 22, 2009, two WMATA trains collided near the Fort Totten station outside Washington, DC, killing nine and injuring over 50. Today there are several memorial services planned, and here at the Safety Board, we are ever mindful of the loss of life that occurred that day and the hardship endured by so many in the past 12 months.

On behalf of my fellow Board members and our staff, I offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the victims of that tragic accident, as well as to the scores injured, and to everyone affected by the tragedy.

Over the past year, the Safety Board has been taking an unprecedented look, from top-to-bottom, to determine exactly why that fatal accident on the Red Line happened. In the weeks and months that followed the accident, the Safety Board issued two rounds of urgent safety recommendations, and this past February, we held a 3-day public hearing. Next month, on July 27, our investigation culminates, when the Safety Board considers the accident's final investigation report.

I assure you that the Safety Board is committed to producing a quality and comprehensive accident report so that a rail accident like this one - whether in Washington or on any other transit property in the country - is never repeated.

Let's now begin consideration of today's report.

A few weeks ago, the NTSB staff submitted the following report for the Board's consideration:

NOTATION 8092: Highway Accident Report - Bus Loss of Control and Rollover, Dolan Springs, Arizona, January 30, 2009.

On January 30, 2009, after a day of touring the Grand Canyon, a 29-passenger medium-sized bus carrying a driver and 16 passengers crashed on U.S. Highway 93 near Dolan Springs, Arizona. Tragically, a long day of sightseeing at one of our nation's most treasured national parks, the Grand Canyon, ended in catastrophe.

There's no question that the outcome of this accident was catastrophic. Of the accident bus' 17 occupants, 15 were ejected from the bus, either partially or wholly. And nearly half of the bus occupants (7 occupants) were fatally injured. Equally significant, not a single occupant walked away unscathed - of the 10 surviving passengers, all 10 received some sort of injury, many of them serious.

Shortly, the staff will discuss the cause of the accident and identify recommendations that will prevent or mitigate the severity of an accident in the future. However, many of the issues in this accident have been identified by the Safety Board in previous investigations and today we discuss them again because no progress has been made.

Today, across the industry, and even among DOT agencies, the term "bus" can mean vastly different things - from taxi, to school bus, to shuttle bus, to motorcoach, and data recorders are still not standard equipment. These seem like simple issues, but they have wide ranging safety implications.

The Safety Board first looked at the lack of a standard definition for bus body types over a decade ago, in our 1999 bus crashworthiness special investigation. Based on that investigation, the Safety Board issued recommendations to develop standard definitions and classifications for different bus body types. This issue also resided on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for several years.

Unfortunately, here we are ten years later, and we still have not advanced the issue.

The push for a standard definition and classifications of bus body types is not hyperbole. Without a standard definition, there can be no safety standards. And without event recorders, we won't learn as much as we can from each accident. And this should be of concern, not just to the Safety Board, but to everyone.

Medium-size buses, like the accident bus, are used everywhere throughout our communities. We have all ridden in them.

Just the other morning on my commute into the office, I counted over 10 types of these buses on the highway. You see them every day in your travels. Just outside this building, these buses are lined up to commute federal employees to and from work. They carry our children to and from school, shuttle us between airports, hotels and car rentals, and regularly transport us to our church and social activities and throughout our communities.

And while the sheer number of fatalities on medium-size buses in any given year may not be as striking when compared to other accident categories, what is particularly compelling is that, while a medium-size bus accident may be a rare event, just one accident - as this accident illustrates - can have catastrophic results.

And the use of these buses is on the rise. According to the Mid-Size Bus Manufacturers Association (MSBMA), the production volume of medium-size buses reported by its members is between 10,000 and 13,000 units each year - that's about 8 times the number of full-size motorcoaches produced for the U.S. market each year.

That is why regulatory change is needed, and in fact critical, if we truly want to improve the safety of all shapes and sizes of buses.

Now, a few final comments.

Over the last few weeks, the individual Board Members have had the opportunity to read the accident report. While we might have met with staff individually to discuss the draft, today is the first opportunity for the Board Members to discuss the issues contained in the draft report.

This morning, the Board Members will examine each section of the report's draft, soliciting staff comments and explanations on many points. Once we have gone through the body of the draft report, we will consider the conclusions, probable cause determination, and specific safety recommendations proposed by staff. We will then determine if we should approve the draft as presented, approve the draft with editorial, analytical and/or factual corrections and revisions that have been agreed upon during the meeting, or return the report to the staff for revision.

Sometimes all or part of a draft conclusion, probable cause or recommendation is revised or rejected by the Members. This is because these are the Board's actual deliberations over the documents. That is the purpose of the Sunshine Act -- to provide the public with a window into the decision making process.

Approximately 30 minutes after this meeting, copies of the abstract containing conclusions, probable cause, and recommendations approved by the Board can be obtained from the Board's Public Affairs Office Room 6201.

On behalf of the men and women at the Safety Board, I would like to express our appreciation to all of the individuals and organizations that helped with this accident investigation - the representatives from local, state and federal agencies, first responders, police personnel, and service organizations, your assistance was invaluable. Thank you.

I also offer my deepest condolences to the families of the individuals who lost their lives or were injured in this accident. A day touring a national landmark - like the Grand Canyon - should be a day remembered for its beauty, not its tragedy, and we are deeply sorry for your loss.