Sorry, a rogue is no reincarnate

By David Hubbard

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) uses the word reincarnated to describe out of service operators who have returned in no better shape than when they left to do business under a new identity.

What little I know of karma and reincarnation, it is too wondrous a concept to apply to someone who flies under the radar and slinks around through the loopholes to gain a new lease on life. In my estimation coach operators of this ilk are more akin to a virus that mutates to escape the antibiotic. The threat grows deadlier with each iteration of the strain.

Word games aside, coach carriers have been speaking out on these practices for years, and operators I have talked to are pleased to see the federal agencies doing more to address their complaints.

Examined records

GAO recently set out to determine the number of new entrant coach carriers registered with FMCSA in 2007 and 2008 that are essentially previous out of service carriers, and to identify new entrants with connections to non-compliant carriers placed out of service. The office examined the records of 67 motorcoach accidents over the last 10 years and determined that 15 carriers with a history of significant safety violations caused one-half of all the onboard fatalities and should not have been doing business.

Of roughly 220 companies fined and ordered out of service, GAO identified no less than 20 offenders in at least nine states who had evaded compliance by reopening under a new name. Violations ranged from operating without the proper license to failing to test drivers for illegal drugs and alcohol. GAO says more could be out there, but it had no way to identify those who purposely gave FMCSA deceptive information. GAO says the number of violators is likely higher, since the office only identified companies based on exact matches of information.

FMCSA maintains these rogue tactics are relatively easy to pull off and difficult to detect, leaving the carriers to continue to operate as safety risks.

More bite into enforcement

However, the administration told BUSRide it is working diligently to put more bite into its registration and enforcement policies by strengthening its oversight of federal operating authority applications, and has already made changes to the application processes designed to block rogue operators showing up under a new USDOT authority.

Since August 2008, FMCSA says it has conducted additional vetting of applications of all motorcoach companies entering the industry. Of the more than 800 carriers that have applied for USDOT operating authority since this initiative began, the administration has denied authority to one carrier determined to come back in a new form, and dismissed 100 applications for failing to provide the information necessary to complete the vetting process. An additional 17 companies opted to withdraw their applications.

In addition, FMCSA says it is continuing to reduce the time it takes to conduct the initial safety audit of motorcoach entrants.

“Federal law requires new carriers to undergo a new-entrant safety audit within 18 months of the company commencing operations,” says an FMCSA spokesperson.  “FMCSA internal policy directs that safety audits be conducted within nine months, while in reality, most are completed within five months.”

Meanwhile, California is taking matters into its own hands with two recently introduced Assembly Bills. AB 636, The Passenger Charter Carriers Act requires an operator to obtain certification from the Public Utilities Commission or be permanently revoked from offering carrier service. The associated AB 951 deems non-compliance and any violation of any order from the commission as a crime, and imposes much stiffer penalties for a host of infractions by non-compliant operators and drivers who could face hefty fines and suspensions of service for up to five years.

As one prominent California coach operator puts it: Justice moves, albeit slowly.