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By Jacob Geiger June 11, 2011

Bus association head says buses safest mode of commercial transportation

A May 31 bus crash north of Richmond that left four dead and more than 50 injured has prompted a re-examination of bus safety.

The bus was traveling from North Carolina to New York City’s Chinatown district when it swerved off I-95, struck an embankment and flipped over in Caroline County. Driver Kin Yiu Cheung faces charges of involuntary manslaughter. Virginia State Police say driver fatigue contributed to the crash.

Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, a lobbying group, said the tragedy should not overshadow an excellent safety record by the U.S. bus industry.

Buses travel the country "with a stellar safety record, a safety record that exceeds that of any other commercial mode or surface transportation mode," he said at a June 7 press conference in Richmond.

Pantuso made two claims about safety: 1) That buses are safer than any other commercial  mode, and; 2)  That buses are the safest surface transportation mode. We checked out both.

The Department of Transportation keeps safety statistics, but you have to go to a lot of offices to collect them. Different data -- often hard to compare -- is kept by the various agencies that oversee planes, trains and automobiles.

We started by looking at highway safety. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 33,808 people were killed in automobile accidents during 2009, the latest year statistics are available. Of those people, 26 were bus passengers -- less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total fatalities.

In 2008, according to the NHTSA, 37,423 people died in U.S. vehicle accidents. That year, 67 of those killed, or about two-tenths of one percent, were bus passengers. Data going back to 2005 show bus passengers accounted for a similar percentage of vehicle deaths in other years.  

Airlines are safer than buses. In 2010, there were no fatalities in commercial U.S. airline travel. During the past decade, there has not been a single year when more than 100 people were killed in airline crashes, with the exception of 2001. That year airline deaths were high because of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Though fatalities are very low among airlines, there are several hundred air-travel deaths each year, primarily when private or chartered planes crash.  

All of these raw statistics, though, don’t give us a good "apples-to-apples" comparison of the safety of different transportation modes. So we turned to the National Safety Council, which focuses on improving workplace and transportation safety.  

Each year, the NSC produces a book of injury facts. The book’s transportation section determines how many deaths occur per passenger mile. Here’s how the statistic is calculated: If four friends leave Richmond and drive 100 miles to Norfolk, that’s 400 passenger miles. The return trip is another 400 passenger miles. The same principle applies to air or train travel.

The NSC, using Department of Transportation data on fatalities and miles traveled, computes fatality rates for travel by plane, bus, train and automobile, The agency’s 2011 report contains average fatality rates for 2006 through 2008. Each rate is per 100 million passenger miles:

* Scheduled airlines: 0.003

* Commercial buses: 0.05

* Passenger trains: 0.06

* Automobiles, including taxis: 0.61

Similar results emerge if you look at a 10-year average, from 1998 through 2007. Airlines have the lowest fatality rate, at 0.01 deaths per 100 million passenger miles. Buses and trains both have a rate of 0.04 deaths, and automobiles have a rate of 0.75 deaths.

Statistics show that private auto fatalities have declined over the past 15 years, even as the number of drivers and amount of miles traveled has increased. The number of bus deaths has remained roughly constant, though far below the fatality rate for private auto travel.

Let’s review our findings.

Pantuso, the industry lobbyist, said buses have "a safety record that exceeds that of any other commercial mode or surface transportation mode."

According to a wealth of transportation data, buses have been the safest mode of surface transportation in recent years, narrowly edging trains when fatalities are measured per 100 million miles. Passengers are far less likely to die in a bus crash than a car crash. So buses have a strong claim as the safest mode of surface transportation.

But when it comes to moving passengers safely, nothing tops commercial air travel. The death rate of airlines is much lower than that of commercial buses.

Pantuso was right about buses being the safest form of surface transportation, but wrong about them being the safest form of all commercial transportation. We’ll split the difference and rate his claim Half True.  

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

National Safety Council, Injury Facts 2011 edition, accessed June 9, 2011.

National Safety Council, Injury Facts 2010 edition, accessed June 9, 2011.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Transportation fatalities by mode, accessed June 9, 2011.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Occupant fatalities by vehicle type, accessed June 9, 2011.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. passenger miles, accessed June 9, 2011.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Vehicles involved in fatal crashes by type, accessed June 9, 2011.

National Transportation Safety Board, Aviation accident statistics, accessed June 9, 2011.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bus company shut down after I-95 crash kills 4, June 1, 2011.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Driver in I-95 bus crash faces manslaughter charges, June 3, 2011.

Interview with Peter Pantuso, president and CEO, American Bus Association, June 9, 2011.

Interview with Dianne Brooks, National Safety Council, June 9, 2011.

E-mail interview Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, June 9, 2011.

E-mail interview with David Smallen, director of public affairs, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, June 9, 2011.

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