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Cars and Transportation

How safe is bus travel in Europe?

Chloe Lyneham
April 18, 2019

Thursday's fatal crash in Madeira is the latest in a series of horrific bus accidents in Europe. DW looks at how safe bus travel really is.

A stock image showing a yellow bus driving along a highway
Image: Fotolia/B. Wylezich

If you are feeling concerned about traveling by bus after hearing about Thursday's crash on the Portuguese island of Madeira, according to statistics you shouldn't be. Although terrible crashes are widely reported in the media when they happen, far fewer people are killed in bus accidents than in car accidents.

According to Germany's Federal Statistical Office, most bus accidents in 2017 involved public transport buses. Of the 5,926 bus accidents in the country (of varying degrees of severity), 4,052 involved the public transport system. Only 229 involved tour buses. Of these thousands of accidents, 22 people were killed.

In 2015, the World Health Organization reported that 84,500 people were killed on roads in Europe. Of this figure, about 20,000 European buses and coaches were involved in crashes, with 30,000 people injured, and 150 people killed. There are strict regulations regarding road safety in Europe but they could be open to manipulation or misuse, if a bus driver or transport operator is negligent.

A similar EU study for 2015 found that buses accounted for approximately 0% of road fatalities in Europe.

Here are some facts about bus safety in Europe:

1.   Seat belts

Since 2005 it has been compulsory for drivers and passengers in tourist buses to wear seat belts. It is also a requirement in the EU that there be specially adapted seat belts for younger children. However, it is up to the driver to enforce this rule, which some believe does not go far enough. Yet in some serious accidents, such as the 2012 crash in Switzerland that killed 28 people, including 22 children, investigators came to the conclusion that seat belts were of little help. CCTV footage of the bus in Switzerland showed that the children were complying with regulations. But the violence of the impact meant that seat belts offered little protection.

2.   Driver work regulations

One of the main causes of road accidents is driver fatigue. To deal with this, there are strict rules in the EU about how many hours commercial drivers can work: The maximum weekly driving limit is 56 hours, with no more that 9 hours per day. After a driving period of no more than 4.5 hours, a driver must immediately take an uninterrupted break of at least 45 minutes. As with the seat belt issue, critics say that these regulations are open to manipulation, or carelessness.

3.   Tachograph

In a further attempt to regulate driver fatigue, all commercial vehicles registered after 1 May 2006 have had to be fitted with a digital tachograph. This is a system that is mounted on the vehicle's gearbox. The device records the bus' activities, for example distance, speed and driving times, as well as the driver's rest periods.

BGS kontrolliert Lkw am Grenzübergang Forst Tachograph
German police examine the tachograph chart from trucks crossing the borderImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M.Helbig

4.   Advanced driver assistance system

Since 2009 all buses in the EU have had to be fitted with two advanced driver assistance systems: a lane departure warning system (LDWS) and an autonomous emergency braking system (AEBS). The AEBS is supposed to reduce the risk of front-to-end crashes on freeways.

There are strict penalties in the EU for failure to comply with any of these regulations. However, one similarity between several of the recent accidents in Europe is that they have all involved driving through the night, at least for part of the journey. Perhaps choosing to travel by bus during the day is a safety precaution one can adopt for oneself. But the fact remains that despite all safety regulations, crashes unfortunately still happen.

Bus bursts into flames after collision in Germany

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