December 20, 2014

Bus safety crackdown meets House opposition

WASHINGTON – Increased authority for random safety inspections of tour buses and money for more safety inspectors received a lukewarm reception by the Republican leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee June 14 following the request by Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Administrator Anne Ferro.

The committee hearing was called in the wake of recent high-profile tour-bus accidents — one in New York that killed 15, and another in Virginia resulting in four dead. Since January, there have been six serious bus accidents that killed a total of 25, Ferro said. She also is seeking an increase in the maximum fine from $2,000 to $25,000 for bus safety violations.

Under existing federal law, intercity buses may be inspected only at their point of origin or destination; but not enroute unless police see an expired safety sticker.

“The last thing I want to see on an interstate highway is a bus inspection and passengers unloaded,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who also was cool to a request for $50 million to hire additional FMCSA safety inspectors.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) said, “I hope we don’t go overboard in reaction to a couple of bad operators.”

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, said, “Unsafe bus companies have no business operating on our roads and putting the traveling public at risk.”

A Houston, Texas, transportation official, David Palmer, expressed concern over so-called “curbside” intercity bus companies that, after being shut down by the FMCSA for safety violations, change their name and pick-up passengers from different locations. Such firms typically advertise their services on the Internet or on printed flyers that are circulated. He said those operators are skillful at avoiding origin and destination safety inspections.

The committee was told that there has been an explosion in the number of curbside bus companies that transport passengers directly from one city to another at low fares. Many of those operators are said to hire drivers with minimal training, limited knowledge of English, and who often drive without sufficient rest, while the buses they drive sometimes do not meet federal safety standards.

Few states put a priority on bus-safety inspections, and increased federal authority is required, witnesses told the committee

The president of the American Bus Association, Pete Pantuso, told the committee, “We see a lot of [states] that just don’t put enough emphasis on bus inspections. We’ve got to get [the unsafe buses] off the highway.”

Pantuso said half the deaths resulting from intercity bus accidents involve carriers and/or drivers in violation of federal motor carrier safety standards.