A thriving curbside bus industry based on cheap fares has a fatal accident rate seven times higher than other types of interstate bus operators, with some companies using a variety of schemes to thwart safety enforcement, according to a federal report released Monday.
Curbside buses pick up passengers from street corners, parking lots and in front of retail stores rather than using traditional bus terminals. More than half of the companies have been in business for 10 years or less, and 44 percent have 10 or fewer buses, said the report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
New companies with few buses were more likely to have higher accident rates and roadside inspection violations, according to the report.
The fatal accident rate for curbside operators between 2005 and March of this year was 1.4 per 100 vehicles, compared with just 0.2 percent for conventional bus operators. Curbside operators also had higher rates of deaths and injuries, the report said.
But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which works with states to enforce safety regulation of interstate bus companies, is overburdened, the report said. There are 878 federal and state inspectors who oversee 765,000 bus companies, or an average of slightly more than one inspector for 1,000 companies.
An in-depth review of a bus company can take an inspector two weeks or longer if the company has a lot of buses or its records aren't well organized, the report said.
The safety administration also doesn't have authority to regulate online ticket brokers who sell most of the tickets for curbside operators, the report said. As a result, brokers often don't disclose the names of bus companies to consumers who buy tickets, leaving purchasers no way to evaluate a company's safety record beforehand, it said.
"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," NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement.
The report was requested by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., in March after a speeding bus returning passengers to New York's Chinatown following a night of gambling ran off an elevated highway. It hit a utility pole, splitting the bus from end to end. Fifteen passengers were killed and 18 injured. The bus' operator, World Wide Travel, was shut down for safety violations.
In May, a bus traveling from Greensboro, N.C., to New York's Chinatown veered off Interstate 95 in Virginia, hit an embankment and overturned. Four passengers were killed and 50 injured. The driver acknowledged falling asleep, according to court documents.
The bus' operator, Sky Express Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., had been cited for 46 violations of driver fatigue rules in two years. The company was ordered to shut down after the accident, but within days resumed business under two new names, according to the Department of Transportation. That prompted a second shutdown order from the safety administration.
This year, there have been 23 interstate bus accidents in which 33 people have been killed and 452 others injured, according to a tally kept by Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety, which is pushing for tougher bus safety regulations.
"It's clear that the curbside discount bus industry isn't as close to safe as the traditional bus industry," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an interview. He said he is considering introducing legislation to increase the number of federal bus inspectors and to require interstate carriers be graded from `A' to `D' on their compliance with safety regulations.
If bus companies and ticket brokers are forced to clearly disclose a company's safety grade, consumers will gravitate toward safer operators, Schumer said. Operators who want to compete will be forced to increase safety, he said.
Curbside buses sprang up in the 1990s as an inexpensive way for low-income Chinese workers to travel between New York and Boston. The number of companies, buses and routes has expanded rapidly in recent years. Fares typically are under $30. Most routes are in the Northeast, Midwest and California.
State and federal inspectors told the NTSB that curbside operators, as well as their drivers, often don't speak English well. One requirement for a commercial driver's license is that drivers understand English. But more than 10 percent of the fitness violations issued to curbside drivers were for an inability to speak English, and over half the violations cited in orders to shut down curbside operators involved language deficiencies, the report said.
Inspectors said they had difficulty conducting inspections with company officials who don't speak English, reviewing company records written in a language other than English, and dealing with answering machines and message services in other languages, the report said. One concern is that operators who don't understand English may be unaware of safety regulations or don't understand them, the report said.
Other problems highlighted in the report:
_ Drivers falsifying their logbooks to evade limits on the number of hours they can drive.
_ "Reincarnated" carriers who continue to do business after being ordered to shut down. Carriers sometimes transfer buses and drivers to a company in a relative's name. They also use "ghost buses" painted white or black with minimal information on the outside to make it easier to paint over a company's name with a new name.
_ Incorrect addresses and phone numbers that make it difficult to schedule inspections. Investigators said they aren't always sure they were dealing with the actual owner or manager, especially when meeting in restaurants and other "nontraditional places."
_ Information gathered on bus companies is often incomplete or out of date. Operators sometimes use their corporate names when they register, but don't include the common or trade names they use to operate buses.
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National Transportation Safety Board www.ntsb.gov