Five days after the U.S. closed 26 discount bus companies, the National Transportation Safety Board yesterday showed how much work remains to improve safety in the nation’s fastest-growing passenger transportation mode.
Unqualified drivers remain on the road, driving-time limits are being ignored, and rules requiring life-saving technology such as seat belts on buses are needed, said Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group.
The U.S. Transportation Department last year shut down World Wide Travel of Greater New York after a crash last year in the Bronx that killed 15 people returning to New York's Chinatown from a Connecticut casino. Driver fatigue and poor oversight probably caused the crash, the safety board ruled yesterday.
“The secretary and the agency are finally getting the idea they need to be stricter with the industry,” Jasny said. “Just doing that isn’t enough. We need a full-court press.”
The Bronx crash was one of three fatal accidents in a span of 11 weeks on the East Coast last year that focused regulatory attention on bus safety. At least 28 people died in crashes last year.
World Wide’s buses and drivers remain on the road under management of a different company, the safety board said. That highlighted the government’s struggles to stop unsafe bus companies from staying in business under new names after being ordered to shut down.
Great Escapes Tours and Travel is operating out of the same Second Avenue address in Brooklyn used by World Wide Travel, according to Transportation Department records. Great Escapes was inspected by the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates bus safety, after last year’s crash and given a conditional rating, meaning the government found shortcomings and is giving the company time to correct them.
Subsequent visits showed the company hasn’t made enough improvements to get to an acceptable “satisfactory rating,” the NTSB said yesterday.
“It is apparent that the carrier’s management does not have a safety system to resolve the proximal causes and associated risks with driver behaviors, leading to repeated driver safety violations proven to increase the risk of accidents,” the safety board said.
NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt pointed out that the Defense Department rejected World Wide’s application to carry members of the military while the Transportation Department gave it operating authority and passing safety grades.
“Something seems badly broken when one arm of the government, the DOD, says that this company is not qualified to carry troops and yet another federal agency says it’s OK for you to be in business,” he said.
The safety board recommended that the FMCSA develop guidance for companies on how to monitor drivers and that bus companies be able to see 10 years of driving records for operator applicants. Regulators will review them, Anne Ferro, the bus agency’s administrator, said in an e-mailed statement.
“We all agree there is no place on our roads for unsafe bus companies that place passengers and other motorists at risk,” Ferro said. “FMCSA has significantly stepped up bus safety inspections nationwide, and asked Congress for greater authority and stronger tools to stop old, unsafe companies from reincarnating as chameleon operators.”
Great Escapes will remain under scrutiny, Ferro said.
A call to Great Escapes seeking comment wasn’t immediately returned.
“This is a company that doesn’t have the greatest track record,” said Dan Ronan, spokesman for the American Bus Association, which has pushed regulators to take stronger action against Chinatown lines. The Washington-based American Bus Association’s members include FirstGroup Plc’s Greyhound and Stagecoach Group Plc’s Megabus.
“You can put a new shingle outside, but you’ve got to change the corporate culture,” he said.
Bus companies are hampered by U.S. rules that restrict them to seeing three years of job applicants’ driving histories, the safety board said yesterday. That’s a major impediment for companies trying to find qualified drivers, said Peter Pantuso, American Bus Association president and chief executive officer.
World Wide driver Ophadell Williams had 18 driver’s license suspensions on his record and was fired from jobs with Coach USA, a unit of Perth, Scotland-based Stagecoach Group Plc, and the New York Metropolitan Transit Agency, the NTSB found.
He lost control of his motorcoach on its way back to Manhattan’s Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut early on March 12, 2011. The bus flipped on I-95 just inside the Bronx and hit a sign post, shearing off the roof.
Williams, who was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, was traveling 78 miles per hour in a 50 mph zone in the minute before the accident, the safety board found. The finding prompted the board to recommend that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration propose rules requiring devices to limit speed in buses.
The driver had almost no opportunity to sleep the day before the crash, NTSB investigators said. In documents compiled by board investigators, Williams was shown to have been using his mobile phone and driving a rental car during hours he reported he was asleep on his driving-hour logs.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the agency has been pinpointing tired drivers as a cause of accidents for decades.
The board may have to do more to understand why schools and some other tour groups push bus operators to travel overnight, when research shows crash risk is the highest, she said.
“You don’t want to take the cheapest carrier,” Hersman said. “You want to make sure you’ve looked at them. You are putting your life in their hands when you get on a bus.”