July 31 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. regulators’ failure to shut down discount bus operator Sky Express Inc. after finding extensive safety violations was a contributing cause of a fatal 2011 crash, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled.
Sky Express, which was based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and operated from Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, was closed days after the early morning May 31, 2011, crash outside Doswell, Virginia that killed four. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration missed multiple opportunities before the accident to shut down a carrier that didn’t follow basic safety procedures, the board said.
“It wasn’t just the bus driver asleep at the wheel,” the safety board’s chairman, Deborah Hersman, said today as the board met to vote on what caused the accident. “If you can’t get the worse of the worst off the road, that is a harsh judgment against the agency.”
The safety board’s findings come as the FMCSA, part of the U.S. Transportation Department, is trying to crack down on unsafe bus operators. The department got expanded legal authority to go after bus lines with extensive safety problems, including stiffer fines, in a transportation policy bill Congress passed June 29.
The Sky Express crash was caused by a driver falling asleep and a company that didn’t manage fatigue or keep track of its drivers, the safety board said.
Sky Express was operating after being cited for 204 violations in 94 roadside inspections in the 10 months before the accident, according to records the NTSB made public as part of the crash investigation.
FMCSA had conducted four safety reviews in four years at Sky Express, unusual for an agency that inspects 2 percent to 3 percent of bus companies a year due to limited resources. Sky Express wasn’t flying under the radar, Hersman said.
“The crash we discuss today should never have happened,” Hersman said. “It was entirely preventable.”
The Sky Express crash was the third in a span of 11 weeks along I-95 between Virginia and New York last year. Those crashes sparked a yearlong investigation that resulted in an unprecedented enforcement sweep in May, in which the bus regulator closed 26 companies, many of them operating to and from New York’s Chinatown, as imminent safety hazards.
That action followed an “unprecedented investigation,” Candice Tolliver Burns, a FMCSA spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. The agency is using a new rule that links unsafe companies to their affiliated entities, Burns said. The agency shut down 54 bus companies in 2011.
“We will continue to use the full force of our enforcement, regulatory and consumer outreach tools to make bus travel safe -- every trip, every time,” she said.
The NTSB today recommended that the truck and bus agency change its rules to force new companies to show that they understand U.S. regulations and have safety practices in place before they begin to operate. Current law allows companies to begin running buses immediately, subject to a follow-up review.
FMCSA should also change its rating system to make it easier to shut unsafe operators, the NTSB said. The board first made that recommendation in 1999.
The four passengers who died in the Sky Express crash were crushed after the bus roof collapsed during the rollover. The NTSB reissued a recommendation that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration develop regulations for better occupant protection in buses, as well as stronger roofs.
Sky Express didn’t have written safety policies or a driver’s handbook on drug and alcohol use, seat belts and mobile phone use, the NTSB found. Its only criteria for hiring drivers was that the applicant held a commercial driver’s license and was 21 years of age or older, it said.
Kin Yiu Cheung, the driver in the Sky Express crash, was hired in July 2010 with no previous commercial driving experience, according to the NTSB. He was previously employed as a restaurant delivery driver.
When executives of Sky Express met with U.S. bus-safety regulators for an audit in March 2011, problems were clear, according to audit documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
One driver worked 11 consecutive days without a rest period, according to the documents. Four of 10 drivers couldn’t understand enough English to identify their employer. An insulin-dependent driver made a 938-mile run without medical clearance. All those infractions violated U.S. law.
Inspectors rated the carrier “unsatisfactory,” meaning it had to close in 45 days unless it could prove it had fixed the problems. It didn’t, the documents show, yet the agency gave Sky Express a 10-day extension. The crash happened during the extension period.
When the FMCSA, which regulates all intercity bus services, ordered Sky Express off the road after the accident, the agency cited the same violations behind the “unsatisfactory” rating, documents show.
Sky Express had also received an “unsatisfactory” rating in 2009, agency records show. The company satisfied the agency that it had corrected the issues and was allowed to stay in business. A 2010 audit resulted in a “satisfactory” rating.
The bus regulator stopped granting 10-day extensions for motorcoach companies undergoing compliance reviews, said Burns, the FMCSA spokeswoman.
Sky Express charged customers $30 for a one-way trip between Durham, North Carolina, and New York, compared with $55 to $126 for a ticket on Firstgroup Plc’s Greyhound Lines, the largest U.S. bus company. The company stayed profitable by keeping expenses low. A driver on the nine-hour trip would make $75, according to audit documents.
Thirty-three people were killed in 13 fatal bus crashes in the U.S. in 2011, according to data compiled by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group. Many of those accidents involved carriers offering fares as low as $1 each way that picked up and dropped off passengers at curbsides in East Coast cities, typically operating to and from Chinatown neighborhoods.
Accidents increased as bus departures grew 32 percent last year, making it the fastest-growing mode of U.S. travel, according to a study DePaul University in Chicago released in December.
The Washington-based American Bus Association, which advocates for companies like Greyhound and Stagecoach Group Plc’s Megabus, pushed to give the Transportation Department the ability to impound buses.
The new law increases the fine for carrying passengers without operating authority from $2,000 per violation to $25,000 per violation. The U.S. transportation secretary will be able to revoke operating authority on his own initiative after becoming aware of any kind of common ownership, common management or family relationship with a carrier that’s been shut down.
The Sky Express investigation was the board’s 25th bus crash probe in the past 10 years, Hersman said. Investigators have previously found similar combinations of fatigued drivers, companies that cut corners on safety and lax oversight, Hersman said.
Current fines aren’t working because they’re seen as a cost of doing business, Hersman said. NTSB investigators found that Sky Express’s $2,100 penalty didn’t have much impact on a company with annual revenue of about $4 million.
Roadside inspections are continually finding problems serious enough to take drivers and vehicles off the road, Hersman said. About 20 percent of buses have defects sufficient to be taken immediately out of service, she said.
“Clearly the penalty scheme is not a deterrent to putting tired drivers on the road or putting unsafe vehicles on the road, because they continue to do it, year after year after year,” Hersman said.
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