Fire safety: Battling the 1% risk

More plastic-based materials in buses can mean a higher risk of flammability. Kevin Bradley, Secretary General of flame retardant trade association Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, speaks out about the life-saving importance of flame retardant materials in buses

More than 30 million men, women and children use the bus every day in Europe – for getting to school, getting to work, going shopping, visiting friends and for longer journeys. Thanks to new, lighter and technologically advanced materials, buses are more comfortable, quicker and fuel efficient than ever.

But progress can have a price. The lighter fabrics and body materials used in the construction of buses are often based on plastics, polymers and other composites. Indeed, the total percentage of plastics in vehicles has increased steadily since the 1970s, reaching 14% in 2000 and 16% in 2016. The proportion of plastics in the overall weight of a vehicle is expected to reach 18% by the end of the decade.

The type of thermo-plastics used by the automotive sector means that a small fire in a bus or car can very quickly ignite, resulting in the vehicle being enveloped in flames and smoke which can prove fatal for passengers.

Kevin Bradley: ‘Fire safety requirements in buses not as stringent as other methods of transport’

Alternative fuels such as battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric or fuel-cell technology are becoming increasingly popular, with more than 50,000 new registrations in the European Union in 2015. Although these vehicles offer more sustainability, the higher quantities of electrical energy they use also produce an increased fire risk.

Whatever the fuel choice, it is clear that bus manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that vehicles are equipped with the highest levels of fire protection materials to reduce risk to life and ensure maximum consumer safety.

Lives at risk

But fire safety requirements for buses are, regrettably, not as stringent as those for trains, ships or aircraft.

Studies conducted for the Norwegian and Swedish Roads Administrations have shown that the fire safety requirements for buses are low, despite the very short amount of time available to safely evacuate passengers from a bus that is ablaze.

The recent tragic bus accident at Puisseguin in Southern France is an example of this. The bus, packed with older people, collided head-on with a lorry that then jack-knifed. After the impact the bus burst into flames, leaving 43 people dead in what was the country’s worst road accident in more than 30 years.

Despite the best efforts of the driver, only eight people managed to escape from the blazing vehicle. The investigation is still ongoing, but this tragedy shows that fire safety and evacuation time on buses is crucial.

Whatever the fuel choice, it is clear that bus manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that vehicles are equipped with the highest levels of fire protection

In Europe as a whole, more than 9% of the population travels by bus every day. Around 1% of coaches or buses catch fire – often with devastating consequences. It may sound like a small percentage, but it means that thousands of people’s lives are at risk. 

Regulation is key

In Europe, fire safety requirements are primarily defined in regulations governed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). These focus on prevention of flammability in engine compartments, partitioning the engine from the rest of the bus, and rules on cable installation. For coaches carrying more than 22 passengers, the UNECE regulations also cover standards for interior materials such as electric cables, roof linings, heating and ventilation pipes.

Technology is constantly being developed to ensure that consumer safety is a priority and that materials in buses and other vehicles are up to standard, while maintaining high performance levels.

The extensive use of flame retardants in plastics and fabrics can increase fire safety in the transport industry. Speaking at the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum last year in Japan, Professor Masaru Kitano of Shukutoku University said: “A rapid decline in vehicle fires in Japan after 2001 can be credited partly to the fall in the number of traffic accidents, but I think it is greatly due to the enhanced flame retardancy in vehicles’ seats and electrical wiring.”

This improvement was triggered by the Japanese Ministry of Transport’s announcement of new safety standards for land transport vehicles in 2002.

Time to act

Flame retardants are materials or substances that inhibit or slow down the growth of a fire, making ignition more difficult. This is crucial because it means people have more of a chance to escape and gives firefighters more time to reach a fire before it is too late.

Flame retardants are added to vehicles and a wide variety of everyday household products such as electronics, clothes and furniture to make them less flammable.

The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF) was created in 1997 in order to improve the efficacy of brominated flame retardants while also minimising their environmental impact.

BSEF works with automotive manufacturers and their supply chain to ensure that the risk of fires on buses and cars is minimised, while ensuring that levels of passenger comfort, vehicle efficiency, quality and durability are maintained or improved.

BSEF also works to ensure that action is taken internationally to ensure that more stringent fire safety regulations and standards for buses are harmonised across Europe to ensure that people enjoy the same levels of consumer protection wherever they live.

The members of BSEF are Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products, Chemtura and Tosoh Corporation.