Safety of HOV Exit Questioned in Atlanta Bus Crash

Posted on Apr 23, 2007

Since the March 2nd charter bus crash took the lives of five Bluffton University (OH) students, the bus driver and his wife, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) ruled there was no bus mechanical failure. The charter exited Interstate 75 north of downtown Atlanta onto an high occupancy vehicle (HOV) ramp but could not stop at a posted stop sign and crashed through a 2-foot retaining wall and 10-foot chain-link fence, then fell onto the highway below.

The federal agency is currently looking into whether signage or highway engineering played a part in the fatal crash on a HOV ramp.

“We should be talking with the state of Georgia to see what they can do in the interim, not necessarily a recommendation from us but something to assure it’s not business as usual in that intersection,” said NTSB member Kitty Higgins. “One thing is clear, the driver did not intend to exit [the highway] on Northside Drive.” She added this HOV exit was “rare” in its design.

Accidents Plague Hghway Interchange

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported 82 other accidents and two fatalities at the Northside Drive and I-75 interchange over the last nine years. Forty-eight of those accidents happened at the top of the HOV ramp where the charter bus lost control at 5:30AM. Higgins added the NTSB will compare that data to other highway intersection accident results in Atlanta to determine if a trend exits.

Since the fatal accident, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is making changes to all six of the left-hand HOV highway exit interchanges in Atlanta.

NTSB Cites Hazards at Crash Scene

In its accident report, the NTSB examined the exit design and said several factors could be significant:

  1. The exit is on the left side of the highway, not the typical, right side
  2. Inadequate advance notice may have been given in this atypical design
  3. The HOV exit is signed differently than most HOV exits
  4. The arrow on the exit sign may mislead drivers just where the HOV lane continues from the highway exit ramp

The NTSB’s seven-member investigative team in Atlanta said a new bus operator took over at 4:30 that morning, one hour before the crash. There was no report the bus driver was talking on a CB radio or cell phone at the time of the accident. Reports also ruled out fatigue, drugs and alcohol as contributing factors. It was not known what the bus speed was when the vehicle exited onto the left-side HOV ramp.

Changes Posed for Safety

At the top of the ramp, there were skid marks but not those suggesting the driver braked suddenly at the stop sign. Investigators said the driver may have mistaken the HOV ramp for a regular highway lane. On the ramp, there are two “Prepare to Stop” signs and those words are also painted on the ramp roadway, according to David Spear, GDOT spokesman.

Fred Hanscom, of Transportation Research Corp. in Washington, D.C., said the ramp could have larger signs, a stoplight at the top [of the ramp] or grooves in the roadway that create “thud” sounds when tires pass over them. “The fact this ramp went almost parallel with the main line of the interstate was a confusing factor,” Hanscom said. “When highway engineers design traffic control devices, a major thing to consider is [a concept called] driver expectancy. When we design signs, we have to know how drivers behave. Drivers normally expect ramps to go to the right, not to the left. Left-hand exits violate driver expectancy.”

Twenty-eight passengers survived the crash. The school’s baseball coach and four players were listed in serious condition after the crash but one of those players later died from his injuries. The five Bluffton student-athletes killed were freshmen or sophomores. All but one was in his teens.

Bluffton University is a Christian liberal arts college affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA, south of Toledo. The baseball team was traveling to a season-opening tournament in Sarasota, Fla. The charter was operated by Executive Coach Luxury Travel, Inc. of Ottawa, Ohio.