German politicians have called for an overhaul of transport laws after claims that “rubbernecking” drivers may have cost lives by blocking emergency vehicles’ access to a burning bus in Bavaria on Monday.
Eighteen people are now known to have been killed after the bus, which was carrying elderly tourists to Italy, hit the back of a lorry on the A9 motorway. The bus immediately caught fire, killing more than a third of those on board.
Drivers have been accused of failing to follow motorway protocol by clearing the emergency lane. "Their behaviour is totally irresponsible and shameful," said Joachim Herrmann, Bavaria's interior minister responsible for transport, after visiting the accident site.
He said that emergency services had reached the crash site 10 minutes after being called out, but that they might have arrived sooner, had it not been for drivers who failed to open a corridor to allow fire engines and ambulances through. He claimed the space made was not wide enough for larger vehicles, which had “lost valuable time” as a result. By the time firefighters reached the scene, the heat of the fire was so intense they were unable to approach the vehicle.
Thirty passengers managed to escape. Of the survivors, many are still being treated in hospital and two have life-threatening injuries.
The group of holidaymakers from Saxony had been on their way to Lake Garda in Italy.
The problem of "rubbernecking", or "gawping" drivers – known in Germany as "gaffers" – has long been on the political agenda. On Friday the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, is scheduled to debate the issue – a date set long before the bus crash. Senators are being called on to raise fines for the offence considerably, from the current level of around €20 to up to € 155, with Herrmann also pushing for prison sentences of up to a year.
Irresponsible and disgraceful
Amid calls for a campaign to increase driver awareness of the issue, the prime minister of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, said "the discipline of these people is upsetting". He called on drivers to rethink their attitude, as "they too might one day find themselves in need of an emergency vehicle".
The federal transport minister, Alexander Dobrindt, who visited the site said: "What we have seen is more horrific than one could imagine."
He called it “irresponsible and disgraceful” that drivers “in the opposite lane of traffic drastically reduce their speed to be able to see what has happened”. He said that people were increasingly stopping to film accidents on their mobile phones, which could cause further accidents.
Dobrindt said raising fines was just one form of deterrent. “The other is that drivers must be made aware of what they can cause as a result of their actions,” he said.
Accident investigators are examining what caused the crash, as well as why the bus burned so rapidly. Within minutes it had been reduced to a burnt-out metal edifice, with everything flammable destroyed. The investigation will now also take into account how drivers might have added to the severity of the accident.
Earlier this year rescue workers in Hesse were forced to abandon their vehicles and race on foot to aid a construction worker who had fallen five metres from a bridge. They faced abuse from drivers, who accused them of blocking the motorway. The licence plates of around 30 vehicles causing the hold-up were photographed by medics and passed on to the police.