Reaction to crashes misses the mark
Rogue operators continue to tarnish the industry
By David Hubbard
Early morning Saturday, March 12, in New York City, a Wide World Tours coach returning from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut to Chinatown overturned along Interstate 95 in the Bronx and slid into a highway sign, killing 15 people and injuring 20. Monday evening, a Super Luxury Tours motorcoach careened off the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick and struck a concrete overpass support near the Route 18 interchange, lurched across all three lanes and came to rest on the side of the road. One passenger died in the crash. The driver died after being ejected 15 feet through the windshield.
These two fatal accidents evoked the public outcry over the overall safety of passengers riding on motorcoaches that has now become predictable. In the aftermath, New York Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Nydia Velasquez complained to the National Transportation Safety Board, citing the first crash “as just another example of an industry that in many cases is operating outside the bounds of city, state and federal transportation safety guidelines,” according to the Associated Press.
True to a point, but their comments point only to an extremely small percentage of all North America motorcoach operators, and unfortunately still smack of the same over-generalized, knee-jerk response of putting the entire motorcoach industry at fault and demanding that something be done about it immediately.
Meanwhile, industry leaders and operators continue to say motorcoaches are clearly the safest mode of ground transportation. Statistically, this is a true statement, but no one is purporting safe coach travel as unconditional.
Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association (ABA), spent most of this week fielding calls from the media. He says while initial questions focused on the issue of seat belts — questions perpetuated by politics — this time around, as the accounts of these crashes unfolded, the questions turned to compliance and enforcement. He says one journalist actually grasped the fact not all motorcoach companies are alike in this respect.
Though the political response generally fails to address the precise causes and effects that lead to injuries and fatalities, the motorcoach industry shares the same disdain for the hapless, irresponsible motorcoach companies flying under the radar. They only create more mayhem for the 99.9 percent of coach owners who operate in good faith and stake their livelihood on the safety of their equipment, mechanics, drivers and performance records.
With his extensive criminal record, which includes manslaughter, grand larceny and driving without a driver’s license, how the driver of the Wide World Tours coach could be behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle with a valid CDL is the question on everyone’s mind.
Investigators of the company involved in the second crash will consider a litany of driver-related violations that includes driver fatigue, unsafe driving and driver fitness, according to FMCSA records.
Accidents are preventable, but they are going to occur regardless. Seat belts may ultimately save more lives, and maybe more stringent construction standards would avert passenger ejections. But at this very moment, aggressive and keenly focused enforcement of the laws already on the books is one sure way to kick incompetent, dangerous drivers off the bus and shut down the rogues.
With the majority of the deadliest coach crashes occurring with irresponsible companies that demonstrate no regard for the safety of passengers, where is the crackdown?
When any accidents occurs, it is just as important to question the effectiveness of regulators and inspectors contracted to enforce the federal safety regulations, as it is to scrutinize the motorcoach companies.
DOT and FMCSA have made giant strides over the last several years to recognize and address safety issues specific to motorcoach operations and sharpen the enforcement tools to pinpoint the problems. Compliant operators vary only slightly in their opinion of safety regulators and inspectors. A prevailing attitude wafting through the industry suggests the approach by a great number of regulators and inspectors is simply too lazy to fix this problem.
One camp sees little effort to track down the rogues and believes nothing changes even when they do come face to face with a bad actor.
Operators in the second camp give them a little more credit for at least making an effort to shut them down and prevent their reappearance under another name.
Both camps agree if local inspectors had it in mind to really clean up the industry, they would have little problem clamping down on a host of very fixable issues — a job made easier by federal encouragement, new tools of astounding depth in the Status Measurement System (SSMS) and Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) from FMCSA, and not to mention public sentiment.
If the state regulators accept federal money to carry out this function and fail in their duties to enforce the most questionable companies, one suggestion is for the federal agencies to simply hire independent third-party inspectors to get the job done properly. What’s more, we hear time and again from truly compliant coach operators who could and would gladly provide a list of questionable carriers to chase down. As BUSRide wrote previously on this issue: What part of Sic’ em don’t these people get?