The rise and fall of the "bus plunge" story.

Media criticism.
Nov. 13 2006 5:50 PM

The Rise and Fall of the "Bus Plunge" Story

What killed this former New York Times staple?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

As recently as 1980, the New York Times reserved an honored—if small—place in its pages for "bus plunge" news. Whenever buses nose-dived down mountainsides; off bridges and cliffs; over embankments, escarpments, and precipices; through abutments and guardrails; or into ravines, gorges, valleys, culverts, chasms, canyons, canals, lakes, and oceans, the news wires moved accounts of the deadly tragedies, and the Times would reliably edit them down to one paragraph and publish.

As an example of the genre, it's hard to beat this 30-word gem I culled from the March 5, 1959, edition of the Times:

15 Africans Die in Bus Plunge
MATTAIELE, Union of South Africa, March 5 (Reuters)—Fifteen Africans were killed and thirty others were injured today when a bus careened out of control off a cliff near the Mabusa mission station, about fifteen miles from here.

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[More], the old journalism review, discovered the Times' affinity for bus plunges in 1972, reproducing in its November issue 30 examples from the paper. But its editors confessed that they didn't know what to make of the phenomenon: "No one on the [Times] foreign desk is talking."

New York Times, Sept. 1, 1956
New York Times, Sept. 1, 1956

Of course, bus plunges still claim hundreds of lives around the world each year. A Web site records the most noteworthy accidents. On average, the news wires publish one or two plunge stories each month. But the bus-plunge story rarely stops at West 43rd Street anymore. The ProQuest newspaper database shows that the Times published a high of 20 of the shorts in 1968 and ran them frequently throughout the 1970s. But Nexis snares only three examples of the genre in the Times during the last five years.

Writer Tom Miller called the genre's demise to my attention more than a year ago and asked me to investigate. "Are there no more stringers in the Himalayas or the Andes?" Miller wrote in an e-mail, asking if buses, drivers, and highways were safer now.

Miller devotes a chapter to the accidents in his 1986 book The Panama Hat Trail, advising travelers on how best to avoid bus-plunge victimhood. Inspect the bus for balding tires. Does the vehicle have at least one windshield wiper? That's an excellent sign, especially if it's on the driver's side, Miller writes. For the good of your heart, avoid seats that give a view of oncoming traffic. If the driver's wife or girlfriend is a passenger, board that bus: Her presence gives him an added incentive to survive the trip.

New York Times, Oct. 11, 1960
New York Times, Oct. 11, 1960

The chapter check-lists the elements of a definitive bus-plunge story: Plunge should appear in the hed; the piece should be only a couple of sentences long; and it should "include the number feared dead, the identity of any group on board"—a soccer team, church choir, or students—"as well as the distance of the plunge from the capital city." The words ravine or gorge should appear.

Race and culture played a big role in bus-plunge story's placement, too. Miller quotes foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum's equation: "A hundred Pakistanis going off a mountain in a bus make less of a story than three Englishmen drowning in the Thames." By and large, if an American plunged on a bus, the news was always more likely to run as a free-standing story in a U.S. newspaper than as filler.

This bus-plunge piece, which I found in the Sept. 19, 1969, Times,is as succinct as they come and rings every Millerian bell except the distance from the capital:

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