New York's stepped-up enforcement of tour buses after a fatal crash a week ago put more buses and drivers out of service over the weekend at checkpoints statewide in a case that is focusing attention on tour bus safety nationwide, officials said Monday.
One of the major concerns is the log book drivers are required to keep in an effort to fight off fatigue, two safety advocates said. But the books often bear so little relation to reality that they are sometimes called comic books, the advocates said.
Over three days, 16 of 26 buses stopped at a Manhattan checkpoint were put out of service for vehicle or driver violations or both. Outside the city, out-of-service violations against the driver or bus were found in 25 of 138 inspections.
"As proven by these enhanced checkpoints, some of these drivers had no business being behind the wheel and some of these buses had no business being on the road," said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "This is a warning to everyone involved to abide by the law."
Major issues that would put a driver out of service include problems with the log book, license or medical information. Major issues for the bus include problems with tires, lights, suspension, windshield wipers and emergency exits.
Data are incomplete and the total number of buses that were put out of service until either a new driver or bus was dispatched isn't yet known, said Deborah Sturm Rausch, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. She didn't have a breakdown yet of what specific violations prompted the weekend actions.
The unannounced inspections were made Friday night through Sunday. Federal law requires each of the 71,000 buses in the state be inspected annually, but state transportation law requires inspections every six months.
On March 12, a Worldwide Tours Bus headed to New York City's Chinatown from a Connecticut casino crashed into a pole in the Bronx, killing 15.
The driver, Ophadell Williams, said Monday that he is "having a difficult time." Williams told NBC's New York affiliate that he was having difficulty breathing and is "really hurt about the whole situation."
Investigators are looking into whether he was asleep or distracted at the wheel. He has not been charged. Last week, Director of State Operations Howard Glaser turned over data to state police and the inspector general "regarding evidence of false statements" from Williams. Glaser also accused Williams of using multiple names on licenses, one of which was suspended before the fatal bus crash.
Two state officials familiar with the state investigation told The Associated Press last week that Williams appeared to have an incomplete log book. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation continues.
Safety advocates say the crash isn't an isolated tragedy.
In the year before to the March 12 accident, the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety reports 34 motor coach crashes nationwide that resulted in 46 deaths and injuries to 363 people. The group's Jacqueline Gillan seeks many longstanding safety proposals, including secure electronic devices to replace log books.
"Right now, truck drivers and bus drivers keep their own written logs and they are believed to be widely falsified," said Russ Rader, vice president of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety based in Arlington, Va. "That is a big loophole in the enforcement of safety regulations of truckers and bus drivers because you are depending on drivers to report their own time behind the wheel. The log books are widely known to be referred to as comic books."
The National Transportation Safety Board is studying the crash. The company has no history of serious problems.
The state's 160,000 bus inspections and follow-up inspections each year hasn't been cut during the state's fiscal crisis, state officials said. Recent agency cutbacks of 10 percent over the past year, and Cuomo's call for another 10 percent cut in his proposed 2011-12 budget, haven't and won't reduce the program, Rausch said.
State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald said the spot inspections continue.
"While the actions of a few should not tarnish an important and reliable industry, the memory of those who lost their lives last week demands that additional action be taken to safeguard the traveling public," McDonald said.