By Matthew A. Daecher
Reflecting on the past year, much of the news in the bus industry, publicized or not, has not been good.
From crashes to enforcement operations, reports indicate there is plenty of room for improvement in ensuring bus operators transport passengers in a safe manner. This industry has always hung its hat on the premise it is the safest form of ground transportation.
However, in the mind of the public consumer, events over the past year have assaulted the reputation of motorcoach operators. Well-documented and publicized incidents coupled with the lesser-known and surprisingly high rate of vehicles and drivers placed out-of-service during enforcement blitzes erode the public trust and lend to an adversarial environment for enforcement.
Here is a recap of specific incidents over the last year.
January 2: Following a motorcoach crash in Victoria, TX involving a 2005 Volvo motorcoach, the data indicates the coach driver over-corrected after leaving the roadway resulting in ensuing coach rollover. Most of the passengers suffered injuries and one passenger died. While its specific affect on the crash is unclear, it was widely publicized that the motorcoach was illegally imported from Mexico did not meet the required Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
August 8: In Sherman, TX a motorcoach struck a bridge rail, drove off the overpass bridge, rolled and slid on its right side a significant distance before coming to rest, killing 17 of the 55 passengers on board. The investigation indicates the bus company was operating illegally and the driver had an expired medical certification.
Reports also suggest that a blown recapped tire located on the right front steer wheel may have contributed to the crash. It is illegal to run recapped tires on commercial vehicle steer wheels.
October 6: A motorcoach rollover in Williams, CA resulted in 10 fatalities and 35 injuries. Reports indicate the driver over-corrected after traveling off the roadway.
Reports indicate the driver had less than ideal experience and background. Not only licensed improperly, he was an insulin-dependent diabetic, which alone should have disqualified him under physical qualification guidelines. The illegally licensed vehicle also was not registered at the time of the crash.
In a way it is fortunate for the industry that many of these high profile incidents have only occurred with small, less than scrupulous operations. Incidents such as these have at least increased focus from regulators on motorcoach operations. They have stepped up inspections and enforcement activity, including enforcement strike forces that have exposed out-of-service rates for vehicles and drivers.
Many see these incidents as black eyes on the entire industry; as incidents that negatively affect business. The more savvy operators will redirect the attention to these mishaps to actually shed light on two long-standing issues.
One of the biggest complaints among legitimate operators is unfair competition and price undercutting by those who refuse to play by the same rules. While many operational aspects affect pricing, the one most commonly cited for low-ball prices is the total disregard and shortcutting of safety practices.
Publicizing these tragic accidents may have caused potential customers to second-guess whether they want to travel by motorcoach. For this reason, well-established, reputable motorcoach operators can use the negative publicity of these incidents to justify the price of their services and encourage customers to choose safe and reliable motorcoach carriers.
Most operator Web sites tout the company safety program and accolades, but many operators fail to further distinguish their record in other communications. It is not enough to assume potential customers have visited the Web site, or to simply direct them to the Web site to learn about the safety program. Make the safety program the leading component in all direct communications, such as price quotes and e-mail communications.
Nor is it enough to just tout one’s own program. It also is necessary for a company to separate its operation from the competition by informing consumers on all it does differently.
Simply displaying the regulatory safety ratings is not enough, as there is not enough distinction within rating categories to fully educate the consumer. A low-baller may focus only on compliance and obtain the same rating as an operator with a more robust safety program — yet charge less because they do not practice other worthwhile safety program components not considered when rating compliance.
Calling attention to all the components in the safety program helps justify the price cost of service. It may include citing the costs associated with driver hiring and training, driver compensation, technology and other safety-related investments.
The company history also is a valuable tool to distinguish it from competitors. Well-established operators have the upper hand — even if it is only perceived — where longevity makes more references and information available, which can help generate keener awareness and greater trust.
Increased focus on the bus and motorcoach industry also helps address the second long-standing gripe of the presence of operators who continue to fly under the radar.
Looking at another issue that all legitimate operators must confront, my customers will occasionally point to another operator in the area operating illegally, and adversely affecting their potential business. Putting illegal operators out of business presents a very simple and straightforward way to drive customers to legitimate operations for their transportation needs.
Fortunately, the catalyst for addressing this issue has arrived. The recent negative headlines and increased focus on the motorcoach industry have put added pressure on national and local regulators and enforcement personnel to take more aggressive action to protect the public from the perceived dangers of such operations. It is my belief the days of reported lackadaisical responses to complaints about illegal operators are coming to a close.
Today, if an operator has legitimate reason to believe another carrier is operating illegally and can back it up with sufficient documentation and communicate the findings to enforcement officials, enforcement personnel are more unlikely to ignore the complaint and not thoroughly investigate the reported carrier than any time previously.
The silver lining in all the negative publicity presents a perfect opportunity to accentuate your marketing and communications by detailing more precisely to customers what can happen when unscrupulous operators cut corners.
Leverage the increased focus on the industry to finally bring needed attention to those illegal operators, and convert bad publicity into increased customer prospects.