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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) met yesterday to review the March 2, 2007 bus crash at Northside Drive and I-75 that killed seven people and injured twenty-eight on-board passengers.The NTSB ruled the cause of the crash to be signage confusion and driver error.The NTSB also attributed the deaths to lack of passenger restraints in the bus.

The crash occurred when the bus driver, traveling southbound on I-75, mistook an HOV exit ramp at Northside Drive for the HOV through lane.The bus was carrying members of Ohio’s Bluffton University baseball team as well as the bus driver and his wife.The driver and his wife were killed in the accident as well as five other team members.All twenty-eight surviving passengers were injured when the bus went off the overhead concrete barrier at Northside Drive and crashed onto the interstate below.

The HOV lanes were added at the time of the summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.Ten years of traffic accidents at this site show a history of confusing signage for motorists.The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) maintains this roadway.

The NTSB on Tuesday expressed frustration with GDOT’s failure to post adequate signage after similar crashes began occurring.In fact, today the confusing signage remains at this exit ramp.

Accident reconstruction revealed the driver to be travelling approximately 65 mph shortly before braking.This would have been ten miles over the speed limit.He did not appear to brake until he entered Northside Drive traffic.He did not appear to have braked in response to one “exit ramp” sign or two “stop ahead” signs.He also did not brake at the stop signs at the top of the exit ramp.

However, the NTSB criticized the GDOT signage for its failure to include the word “Exit” at the entrance ramp.The two-sign pole originally intended for installation would have included the word “Exit” but DOT officials left it off in an effort to ready the HOV lanes for the summer Olympics.Today, the signage remains although GDOT has installed smaller signage and more pavement markings since the crash.There are six left-hand HOV exit ramps in metro Atlanta currently.

The NTSB recommended the following changes:

The GDOT should:

  1. Install left message plaques ½ mile and one mile prior to the exit ramp and on the directional arrow exit for the ramp.
  2. Position the pull-through sign for the southbound I-75 HOV lane next to the exit sign on Northside Drive.
  3. Install an advisory speed limit sign on the Northside Drive HOV ramp and on other left-side exit ramps throughout the state.
  4. Add an “exit” pavement marking paired with an HOV diamond pavement marking on all left HOV interstate exits.

The Federal Highway Administration should:

  1. Include in the manual for traffic control devices that HOV-only left exits have “left” message plaques.
  2. Require that “exit” direction arrow signs be placed adjacent to pull-through signs at exits with limited sight distance, short ramps, or multiple route choices.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should:

  1. Require new motor coaches to have seatbelts or other crash protection systems
  2. Require on-board recording systems for all school buses and motor coaches built after January 1, 2003.

In 1999, the NTSB recommended that the NHTSA adopt several measure to protect occupants of motor coaches.The NTSB has determined that most fatalities occur when occupants are ejected or partially ejected from buses.Passengers in the March 2, 2007 bus crash were killed when they were ejected through side windows and the windshield.

HOV lanes are a relatively new addition to our interstate highway system.Despite engineering efforts, the fact remains that drivers do not recognize left-hand exits because they are outside of normal driver expectations.Traffic safety engineers and roadway designers did not take into account or failed to significantly appreciate the driver confusion that arises when left-hand exits are added to the interstate highway system.

Ten years later, traffic accident data suggests that these may be excessively dangerous.Also, more could be done to protect occupants in buses and motor coaches.Whether our state highway department will heed the warnings and recommendations of the NTSB is another matter.The NTSB has no authority to enforce its recommendations. Often, legal liability does more to change governmental behavior.

If you or someone you love is seriously injured in an automobile collision or a bus or trucking accident, contact the law firm of Robert N. Katz for a free, private consultation.

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