Passengers who use privately owned buses, such as those owned and operated by churches, should know that the vehicles are not bound to the same federal and state safety requirements that commercial and school buses must meet.
The problem of allowing buses that don’t fall under the same strict oversight to transport passengers was underscored recently by the crash of a church-owned bus that sped off an Indiana interstate and crashed July 27, killing three adults and an unborn child. Dozens of other passengers were injured in the crash, some critically.
The bus, owned and operated by Colonial Hill Baptist Church of Indianapolis, escaped most safety requirements because federal law allows private buses to be inspected by private companies. Church-owned buses do not have to submit any inspection records to authorities, nor do they have to make the records public, according to federal law. Additionally, many states, including Indiana, do not subject private buses to safety oversight.
James Hall, former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman, told the Associated Press that the laws regulating private buses have “a hole big enough for the bus to drive through.”
Mr. Hall told the AP that while some progress has been made improving safety for passengers on commercial buses, the safety of passengers on private buses in ultimately in the hands of those in charge.
“You’ve got to be sure the operators themselves have to have a safety culture to ensure, because they’re the ones that have the ultimate responsibilities for the souls in those seats,” Mr. Hall told the AP.
Former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Joan Claybrook, who now lobbies for highway and auto safety, told the AP that most people aren’t aware of the lack of safety requirements for private buses.
“These buses are virtually unregulated, and people use them at their own risk,” she said. “The problem is, they don’t know that.”
According to the Indianapolis Star, the Colonial Hill bus was inspected in 2010, but there are no records of the bus being inspected annually after that, and church officials have remained silent on the issue pending an investigation of the crash.
The Colonial Hill Baptist Church bus was carrying 37 passengers, mostly church teens who were returning home from a teen church camp in Michigan. The driver, Dennis Maurer, 66, who was employed by the church to drive the bus, told authorities that the brakes wouldn’t work as he exited Interstate 465, causing the bus to careen down the ramp at a high speed. The bus slammed into a concrete median and toppled over, killing chaperone Tonya Weindorf, a mother of five children, and youth pastor Chad Phelps and his wife, Courtney, who was eight months pregnant.