USA TODAY US Edition
Rapid growth of cheap buses outpaces safety oversight
The grisly bus crash that dominated the news on March 12 took only an instant, but the conditions leading up to it might have been years in the making.
The first reports told the bare-bones story. A bus returning to New York City from a Connecticut casino careened out of control, slammed into a guardrail and hit a large traffic sign. The bus flipped over. Its roof was sheared off, and 15 people died.
The unfolding investigation, though, has revealed a series of failures that might have prevented the accident before the passengers ever stepped onto the bus.
The bus company, World Wide Tours, had been cited for serious safety violations, including fatigued drivers, often enough to be put on a special “alert” status list by federal regulators. Despite this, it hadn’t been put through a full federal safety audit for more than two years. Further, according to news accounts, the driver had a criminal record and had used an alias to lie his way out of a moving-violation ticket that might have cost him his commercial driver’s license.
The details raise troubling questions about an arcane federal-state partnership to oversee the bus industry. Federal authorities make the rules. States issue driver’s licenses and handle much of the enforcement. But the system has failed to keep up with a recent growth of small discount carriers that provide cheap rides, mostly between major cities on the East and West coasts. These curbside operators expanded their departures by 24% last year and nowaccount for more than 440 daily trips across the USA.
On the whole, bus travel is one of the safest forms of public transportation. About 15 people die in motor coach accidents annually, compared with tens of thousands each year in cars. Even so, much like airline passengers, bus passengers have no control over their safety and assume that somebody is watching out for them. That faith is often misplaced. While federal law requires annual inspections at bus companies, only 23 states do their own inspections. The rest leave it to private contractors, raising questions about effectiveness. Even in states such as New York that inspect companies twice a year, most visits are scheduled, allowing operators to prepare.
After this month’s crash, New York proved how much more potent surprise checks are. In a series of unannounced stops, the state found violations serious enough to take vehicles or drivers out of service in 62% of stops in Manhattan and 18% elsewhere in the state.
So good for New York. But the number of noncompliant buses and drivers suggests that companies have been operating with impunity and states need to be more aggressive.
It’s time that bus safety, a sort of stepchild in the transportation safety arena, got a fresh look. Today, there are no minimum standards for behind-thewheel training of new bus drivers. Nor are seat belts, recommended for years by federal safety watchdogs, required on buses. The U.S. Transportation Department promises newrules soon on both.
Meanwhile, states are in the best position to oversee the buses and drivers carrying their citizens. They already do the licensing, registering and traffic law enforcement. Using a new federal database (www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security/PCS/Consumers.aspx) that flags companies with serious problems, states should focus surprise inspections on these bad actors. No matter how low the fare, bus passengers shouldn’t have to gamble with their lives.