New Mexico highway rerouted after accident
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.