A tragic bus fire kills 20 people near Hannover, Germany, and proves that fire safety requirements for busses are insufficient

A German tour bus caught fire on an autobahn near the city of Hannover on Tuesday November 4th, 2008 killing 20 people. Survivors told authorities that the fire broke out in the bathroom of the bus. When the door was opened, flames shot out and quickly engulfed the bus. "Passengers who were sitting close to the exit could get away, but the others had no chance," a fire department official said. First, a furtively smoked cigarette was blamed to be the cause of the devastating bus fire. However, according to the investigators, a technical failure most probably led to the catastrophe.

Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee said he was "deeply shocked" by the accident and called for a careful investigation into the cause of the fire and into whether safety regulations were followed or would have to be tightened.
This fire catastrophe is the last in a long row of bus fires. Fire incidents in coaches are frequent and potentially catastrophic considering the confined space and sometimes difficult evacuation. In the past, similar disasters already occurred: in Poland 11 young people were killed after a collision with subsequent rapid fire development inside the bus; in U.S. Texas, a bus fire developed so quickly that it was impossible to evacuate the passengers and 23 people were killed.

A statistical survey of bus fires in Norway and Sweden revealed that about 1% of the buses in traffic are involved in a fire incident every year. Due to the high frequency of fires, the Norwegian and Swedish Public Road Administrations, commissioned SP, the Swedish National Testing and Research Institute to conduct a two year research programme on bus fire safety to show ways how to decrease the number of bus fires and how to minimize their consequences.

The study covered the statistical survey of fires, the evaluation of material fire properties, a review of bus constructions and handling, development work on testing methods for engine room fire detection and extinguishment systems and simulation. The goal was to amend the European vehicle directives with higher fire safety requirements for buses and coaches.
In Europe, currently only low fire safety levels for materials and components used in buses are required. The materials are tested to horizontal flame spread with a Bunsen burner test, curtains to a small flame test simulating a match, and head linings to a dripping test; all are easily met.

The project outcome showed the low fire safety level of these tests and demonstrated the higher fire safety provided by modern fire performance tests. Commonly used bus interior materials (wall panels, floorings, curtains, insulation, plastic panels and seats) were tested to ignition, flame spread, heat release, smoke production, and toxic gas generation. The modern fire test methods used here are already required for the more stringent requirements in rail vehicles and ships.

The results show that most of the materials currently used in buses do not pass the new fire performance tests and therefore present a non-negligible fire hazard.
In the USA, motor vehicle fires are increasingly studied because they cause around 400 deaths per year. Well-known fire scientists pinpoint these problems and urge the American automotive industry and authorities to increase fire safety in motor vehicles by more stringent requirements and the use of modern fire performance tests.