NTSB study points a finger, stirs debate
The hottest industry news this week is the release of the findings of a six-month report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding curbside motorcoach safety.
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez requested the investigation and study following the Bronx coach crash in March that killed 15 and injured 18 others.
Since March the NTSB has initiated investigations into two curbside bus crashes and has been assessing safety issues in three others. These five accidents resulted in 22 fatalities and 159 injuries.
This report is the first comprehensive evaluation of the motorcoach industry, with an emphasis on what are commonly known as curbside carriers. Curbside motorcoach operations consist of scheduled trips that begin or end at locations other than traditional bus terminals.
The study analyzed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) data and conducted fieldwork, which included interviews, focus groups, and observations of compliance reviews and inspections.
Key findings by the NTSB include:
- In general, motorcoach travel is safe. However, curbside carriers with ten or fewer buses AND carriers who have been in business for ten years or less have higher accident rates and higher roadside inspection violation rates.
- The fatal accident rate for curbside carriers from January 2005 to March 2011 was seven times that of conventional bus operations: 1.4 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles for curbside carriers compared with 0.2 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles for conventional scheduled carriers.
- The exclusion of buses from routine en route inspections – especially of curbside carriers that don’t operate from terminals – reduces opportunities to discover safety violations.
- The FMCSA is overburdened. For example, 878 FMCSA and state personnel are responsible for compliance reviews for more than 765,000 U.S. motor carriers, a ratio of 1.15 investigators per 1,000 motor carriers.
- Bus driver fatigue, a contributing factor in many accidents, is a continuing safety concern.
- There is a lack of transparency in ticket sales. More than conventional carriers, curbside operators use online bus brokers. FMCSA has no authority to regulate these brokers.
NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman put it only too lightly during the press conference Oct. 31 to present the study. “Business and safety practices within the growing curbside bus industry create challenges for enforcement authorities and consumers alike when it comes to separating the safe operators from the unsafe operators,” Hersman said.
On the other hand, with all respect to his good intent, Senator Schumer may have failed in his comment to actually separate the safe operators from the unsafe operators.
“It’s abundantly clear that the oversight of this industry has not kept pace with its growth and the consequences have been deadly,” said Schumer. “The NTSB report is a wake-up call that we need a more rigorous regulatory regime, and it provides a blueprint for how to fill the gaps. I look forward to working with [Chairman Hersman] as we now begin the process of working to overhaul how this industry is regulated and monitored.”
The NTSB’s report clearly indicates that the good companies are doing an excellent job. Had the Senator included just one well-placed adjective to describe the operators in question, the public would not be led to believe the entire motorcoach industry is coming under fire. It is more like oversight of this rogue segment of the industry remains lax and the consequences have proven deadly.
Not that the industry doesn’t need constant reminding, but a wake-up call? This is the kind of thing that has been keeping the industry awake at night for as long as the non-compliant cut-rate bus lines have been operating off the safety radar.
The American Bus Association issued a statement soon after the report was released. It commended the NTSB for its comprehensive report on the safety — or the lack thereof — of these operators, adding: “Chairman Deborah Hersman, the other members of the NTSB and the staff have done a very good job highlighting the concerns we at the ABA and have had for many years concerning unsafe bus companies that are operating outside the law and well below the accepted level of safety.”
The ABA also noted the NTSB study clearly points out traveling by motorcoach remains the safest form of surface transportation in the U.S. The average 745 million passenger trips provided annually by the industry are done so with passenger safety and comfort in mind.
Nonetheless, ABA President and CEO Peter Pantuso said: “While all ABA members who provide scheduled and point-to-point service, whether they operate from the curb or from terminals, are safe and have the highest safety ratings, there are companies on the roads that are not operating safely, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration must do a better job finding, inspecting and shutting down bus companies that operate outside the law.”
This issue has been simmering for a good seven years, as long as I have been with BUSRide. When I came on board I kept hearing about safety concerns with the Chinatown buses. A short time later Megabus and Bolt Bus came along and legitimized curbside express coach service, making me think curbside is neither the problem nor a bad word. The danger to the public and to the industry has less to do with where the coaches pick up and deliver passengers than it does with the general disregard for their safety.
“Greyhound’s Bolt Bus is one of the leaders in curbside service and our company has a strong culture and history of safety,” says Dave Leach, president and CEO Greyhound Lines Inc. “The NTSB report clearly indicates that there is a real need for safe and dependable curbside bus service, and we are doing all we can to make sure customers know when they ride with us we’ve done all we can to make the ride safe.”
Speaking on behalf of Megabus, Dale Moser, president, Coach USA, stated: “Coach USA, parent company of Megabus.com, supports the efforts to enforce compliance of the federal and state regulations and has spent millions on driver hiring, training and on equipping are coaches to make them some of the safest motorcoaches in the industry.”
Pantuso says the ABA remains on call to help solve the problem with the illegal companies, citing specific points of agreement in the study.
- The NTSB and ABA support a higher entry fee than the current $300 for a company to apply to the Department of Transportation to obtain a DOT license to carry people.
- The NTSB report points out critical problems exist with some companies and its drivers not being able to master the requirement to speak or read English. This is an issue the ABA has addressed on many occasions to FMCSA and in the media.
- The NTSB report says driver fatigue is a contributing factor in many accidents and a continuing safety concern. This issue is being addressed by the ABA’s Bus Industry Safety Council (BISC) and research is being done by the FMCSA by one of the country’s leading human performance/sleep experts to address ways the government, motorcoach companies and drivers can improve significantly in this area.
- Among those areas where the FMCSA can do better: the ABA believes more emphasis needs to be placed on inspecting motorcoaches in facilities at their point of origin or the destination.
- Vehicle inspectors should place a top priority on inspecting motorcoaches rather than commercial trucks. While commercial products, such as food, are important, people deserve a higher priority.
- The NTSB report indicates the FMCSA’s own database needs a thorough review and updating.
The issues the NTSB addressed – driver fatigue, reincarnated carriers, the FMCSA’s database problems, the lack of inspectors dedicated specifically to motorcoach companies, states with weak compliance and oversight and drivers who don’t speak or read English to an acceptable level – are all ones the ABA has addressed at one time or another during the last several years as the trade association for the motorcoach industry and as a leading safety advocate.
The ABA does agree with the NTSB that a system should be in place to inspect new bus companies before they begin transporting passengers. However, it respectfully disagrees with the NTSB on the issue of en route bus inspections.
According to the ABA, bus inspections need to be done at a company’s place of business, point of origin or maintenance facility before a passenger even gets on the motorcoach. The ABA contends this is an important safety issue for passengers, theorizing that while the inspection is being done passengers would be left along the side of the road without food, drinking water or restrooms.
While fully supporting inspections, the ABA advises compliance reviews and spot inspections in places where they do the most good. Pantuso asserts that en route inspections currently would be difficult to do because, as the NTSB report indicates, bad motor coach companies “engage in practices that make oversight difficult.”
In other words, rogue operators break the law by repainting buses, re-registering the company in a relative’s name, avoiding weight stations, having multiple DOT numbers or operating from states that have a well-known lax reputation and history when it comes to motorcoach inspections and regulation.
It is ironic and confusing that state and federal inspectors say they, in many cases, cannot find the bus companies or motorcoaches to inspect them. The passengers certainly can, and legitimate operators can point them in the right direction.
– David Hubbard