New Mex­ico high­way rerouted af­ter ac­ci­dent

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - ByJuan Castillo jcastillo@states­man.com Con­tact Juan Castillo at 445-3635.

Re­place­ment of bridge had been post­poned for years due to lack of money,

At just un­der 20 feet wide, the Fort Sum­ner, N.M., bridge was about half the width of most high­way bridges and was among the 10 most dan­ger­ous bridges in the state of New Mex­ico, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion gleaned from news ac­counts and court doc­u­ments.

In the days af­ter the 1972 bus ac­ci­dent that killed 19 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 16 teenagers, most of them stu­dents at Crock­ett High School, the New Mex­ico High­way Com­mis­sion dis­closed that the bridge had been sched­uled for re­place­ment since 1965, but the work had been post­poned for lack of money.

A group of fam­i­lies and sur­vivors sued the bus man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany and the state of New Mex­ico. The state was pro­tected by sov­er­eign im­mu­nity, mean­ing it could not be sued for neg­li­gence. Im­mu­nity was nul­li­fied in the case in 1976, although the case was dis­missed, ac­cord­ing to a 1992 Amer­i­can- States­man ac­count.

Some fam­i­lies and sur­vivors re­ceived set­tle­ments from the bus man­u­fac­turer, the Wayne Corp. Oth­ers sued, al­leg­ing that Wayne de­fec­tively de­signed the bus, that it was not crash-wor­thy and that Wayne mis­rep­re­sented that the bus was safe for in­ter­city trips, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. A jury found that the bus com­pany was not neg­li­gent in the ac­ci­dent.

The high­way was later rerouted across a wider, safer bridge.

A 1974 Na­tional Trans- por­ta­tion Safety Board report found that the trac­tor-trailer col­lided with the bridge rail­ing and curb be­fore jack­knif­ing into the bus. The driver of the trac­tor-trailer failed to keep his ve­hi­cle in its proper lane, caus­ing the ini­tial col­li­sion, ac­cord­ing to the report, which also said the bus’s seats were in­ad­e­quately an­chored. That and the ab­sence of seat belts and high-back cush­ioned seats contributed to some of the deaths and the sever­ity of many of the in­juries, the report said.

In a 1987 study of school bus crashes, how­ever, the agency con­cluded that most deaths and in­juries oc­curred be­cause the oc­cu­pants were seated in di­rect line with the crash forces. The NTSB said that seat belts would not have pre­vented most of the se­ri­ous in­juries and deaths.

Fed­eral law does not re­quire large school buses to have seat belts, leav­ing it to state and lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions to de­cide whether to re­quire re­straints.

In 2009, the Texas Leg­is­la­ture passed a law re­quir­ing lap-shoul­der belts on all new large school buses in Texas.

Robert Wes­son, who sur­vived the Fort Sum­ner crash, said that though there was “ex­treme de­struc­tion of seats that were not an­chored in the best way” in the ac­ci­dent, he has al­ways be­lieved that re­quir­ing seat belts on school buses and some pub­lic trans­porta­tion could pre­vent in­juries and save lives.

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