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Passenger buses need crash safety standards: Transportation Safety Board

Photo of a damaged OC Transpo bus following a train crash
TSB photo showing damage sustained by an OC Transpo bus after it struck a VIA passenger train in 2013. Transportation Safety Board

Some of the six people killed when an OC Transpo bus crashed into a VIA Rail train might still be alive had the bus been better designed, says the Transportation Safety Board.

Canada has no crash safety standards on passenger buses, including public transit vehicles like the one involved in the fatal 2013 crash. But we should, the Transportation Safety Board said in a report published Wednesday.

READ MORE: Multiple factors caused fatal Ottawa bus-train accident, including driver distractions

Right now, most municipal passenger buses and coach buses don’t have to meet any standards for crashworthiness – unlike school buses, which are required to meet rollover protection standards, have increased body strength, full-length horizontal impact barriers and other things that reduce damage to the bus and to passengers in the event of a crash.

The double-decker city bus in this case met all federal safety standards.

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When it ran into the train, most of its front end was sheared off. Four of the six people killed in the crash were in that front area, according to the TSB report. The bus was not designed to provide any impact protection for people seated in the front row on the upper deck. It didn’t have a front bumper. It wasn’t required to.

“The front framing was such that it couldn’t resist the size and weight and speed of the collision even though [the bus] was travelling at a slow speed at the time,” said TSB Chair Kathy Fox.

School buses, by contrast, fare much better in collisions because they’re built more robustly, she said.

In train-related accidents, “They’ve tended to have less damage and fewer injuries. So that’s what leads us to believe that a more robust, crashworthy design may have reduced the damage to the bus and may have avoided fatalities in this case.”

When a school bus was hit by a freight train in Carlyle, Saskatchewan, in 2013, one passenger sustained minor injuries. No one was killed. In a 2014 accident in Mississauga, a school bus sustained a broken mirror and a damaged bumper but no one was injured.

Part of the reason large passenger buses aren’t required to meet any crashworthiness standards is simply due to their size, said Fox.

“We believe that was done historically because they are the largest vehicles on the road, and they do fare better in collisions with smaller vehicles because of their size.”

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She hopes Transport Canada will assess the most common types of accidents and determine how buses should be reinforced, she said. They don’t have to start from scratch, either: The American Public Transit Association, an industry group, publishes guidelines for city bus crashworthiness. Although they’re not legally binding, American public transit agencies use them as guidelines when they choose which buses to buy.

“We know this is going to be a long-term solution. It’s not going to be an easy fix in that sense,” Fox said.

“But we wanted to sensitize manufacturers, regulators, transit operators, that they need to keep crashworthiness standards in mind when they go out and purchase a bus.”

Transport Canada has 90 days to respond to the TSB’s recommendations. After that, TSB will evaluate their response and continue to issue annual updates until the safety issue is resolved.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement that Transport Canada officials are reviewing the recommendations and are committed to working with the provinces and territories to improve the safety of all Canadians.

“I’d like to thank the Transportation Safety Board of Canada for their tireless work investigating accidents like these in order to learn from them so that they do not happen again,” he said.