FMCSA takes action against illegal operator

By Peter Pantuso

For years, the American Bus Association has been urging the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to crack down on illegal “rogue” operators imperiling public safety. This month, FMCSA took decisive action against one of these illegal bus operators. The entire motorcoach and group travel industry should applaud the agency for doing so.

At the same time, we also should make clear with a united industry voice that this is the first of what should be many punitive actions to get the rogues off of the road. This milestone case could change everything for the better, not only setting a precedent that illegal companies won’t be tolerated, but sending a clear message that the days of bandit buses are over.

In this case, FMCSA charged Cayetano Martinez, owner of California-based Tierra Santa, with multiple federal motor carrier safety violations. The feds fined him $72,760 after an investigation of a fatal crash in Phoenix on March 5 of one of his buses resulted to the tragic and needless deaths of six innocent passengers, while injuring 16 others.

The worst kind of ‘chameleon carrier’

FMCSA charged Martinez with 78 violations of 13 separate safety regulations. It also identified the four separate company names Martinez allegedly used to illegally operate and evade previous orders from FMCSA to cease all interstate and international passenger carrier transportation. Indeed, this scofflaw was the example of the worst kind of “chameleon carrier.”

The violations against Martinez and his reincarnated companies included 19 counts of operating without federal authority; 21 counts of operating without required minimum insurance; 24 counts of operating in violation of a previous FMCSA order to cease operations; violation of alcohol and controlled substance testing requirements; violation of driver qualification requirements; violation of Hours of Service requirements; and violation of vehicle inspection requirements.

ABA has for years urged the government to be more assertive in its crackdown on rogue bus operators, because safety is our top priority. The industry’s commitment to protecting its passengers has made it the safest form of surface transportation. But a single fatality is too many, and the industry wants to make the safest even safer.

This action by FMCSA helps do just that. Safety begins long before any rider steps aboard a motorcoach. It starts with enforcing the law. FMCSA deserves kudos for setting an example with Martinez and Tierra Santa. ABA hopes it’s only just a start. We need government officials to conduct a comprehensive, coordinated nationwide sting campaign that includes padlocking their garages, stripping the plates from their buses, booting bus wheels and fining those guilty of criminal activity, which the FMCSA just did in this case. Keeping these safety menaces from ever getting on the road in the first place is the best way to prevent future tragedies like this one.

Make no mistake about it: Responsible bus operators want more government oversight.

‘Motorcoach Safety Action Plan’

That’s why ABA is proud to be working with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on its “Motorcoach Safety Action Plan,” which provides a holistic approach to motorcoach safety, and which welcomes the input of the industry with a cooperative spirit of “safety first.” We have welcomed the opportunity to work constructively with DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and other agencies to support science-driven safety. ABA was proud to meet with Sec. LaHood at DOT’s Washington headquarters last month as the voice of the industry, and to discuss areas of common ground we could embrace.

In addition to that, I have been honored with the opportunity to serve the industry and the traveling public by being selected as one of eight new members of the FMCSA’s Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee (MCSAC), a term I began serving June 10. Established by Congress in 2006, the MCSAC is charged with providing information, advice and recommendations to FMCSA on motor carrier safety programs and regulations.

Improving safety takes cooperation from the industry, the public and the government. ABA is heartened to see the regulators adopt a tougher stance against illegal bus companies. I look forward to the decision against the owner of Terra Santa being the first of many that ultimately help to achieve everyone’s goal of making motorcoach travel even safer.

Peter Pantuso is president and CEO, American Bus Association, Washington DC. []

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