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Seat belts could have saved many in bus crash, official says

IRVING -- Many of the 17 people killed in a motor coach crash Friday in Sherman would have survived if the bus had been equipped with seat belts, a state official testified Tuesday.

"Seat belts would have made a difference in this accident because a large number of the fatalities were ejected," Maj. Mark Rogers of the Texas Department of Public Safety told members of a state Senate committee.

Rogers also said a blown right front tire — a retread — "appears to be the cause of the accident."

DPS is assisting the National Transportation Safety Board in probing the official cause of the crash that killed 17 people and injured 38 others.

Members of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, say they'll consider pushing for a new state law requiring seat belts for all bus occupants during the 2009 legislative session.

"I know it's expensive but, when you see this happening over and over again, you have to say too expensive for whom," said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano.

States can pass seat belt laws that are enforceable within their boundaries, Rogers said during a break in the meeting at the Omni Mandalay hotel in Irving. But Texas and other states usually follow federal guidelines for interstate vehicles such as long-distance buses — and current federal law doesn't require seat belts.

But Texas lawmakers have been known to pass state transportation laws that go beyond federal requirements. In 2007, lawmakers passed a law requiring seat belts on school buses bought after Sept. 1, 2010.

The testimony came during the first day of an annual four-day Texas Transportation Summit. More than 1,000 politicians, engineers and other transportation experts from across the U.S. are attending.

During Senate testimony, lawmakers called for a more thorough review of companies that have been fined or ordered out of service by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration – and stepped-up inspections by state officers.

"These are shoddy operators who shouldn't have been on the road to begin with," said state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. "I'm worried about the drivers — how qualified they may be — and what we're doing to make sure the equipment is in good shape."

The DPS has more than 800 commercial vehicle inspectors, but only 221 of them are certified to inspect buses, Rogers said. "Internally, we're going to ramp that number up," he said.

But Rogers also noted that in the case of the Sherman crash, which killed 17 people, the regulatory system worked. Federal officials ordered the bus owner, Angel Tours, out of service June 23 after three critical safety violations were uncovered.

But three days later, the company owner applied for a new service under the name Iguala Busmex. The bus that crashed was registered to Iguala Busmex, but that company didn't yet have federal approval to begin service.

Rogers testified that the crash could result in criminal charges.

"The company did not honor the out of service order," Rogers told the committee. "They elected to ignore the order by reincorporating, and subsequently a tragedy occurred. The statutes currently exist right now to prohibit a company from operating a vehicle in an unsafe manner. It's a class B misdemeanor to do that."

The right front tire was a retread, and was mounted illegally, officials said. Federal law allows recapped tires on motor coaches, but not on the steering axle.

Of the 10 tires on the bus that crashed in Sherman, only the right front tire was a retread, an NTSB investigator has said.

But Grayson County District Attorney Joseph Brown said Tuesday that it was too early to know whether charges would be sought in that county against the bus driver. He said toxicology results are still pending in the case.

Brown said it is also still unknown whether charges would be filed in the county against the bus company.

"We’ll have to look at those issues. Most of the actions would have occurred in Harris County but if we determine that there’s jurisdiction here and there's been a violation and we talk to Harris and we're not duplicating their efforts, then that would be an option," he said.

Brown said it’s his understanding that federal authorities are looking at possible charges as well.

Meanwhile, a Harris County prosecutor told The Dallas Morning News she could not rule out criminal charges against the Houston-based motorcoach owner and president.

Staff writer Deanna Boyd contributed to this report which also contains material from the Associated Press.