In an unprecedented move, the US Department of Transportation Wednesday shut down 26 intercity bus operators, declaring them "imminent hazards to public safety."
It was the single largest safety crackdown in the history of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the branch of the DOT established in 2000 to help curb fatalities and injuries resulting from bus and truck crashes.
In its move, unveiled formally on Thursday, FMCSA ordered 10 individual bus company owners, managers, and employees in six states – based in Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania – to stop passenger transportation operations, including selling bus tickets. The companies had transported more than 1,800 passengers each day in states from New York to Florida along Interstate-95.
The 26 "shutdown orders" included one ticket seller, nine active bus companies, and 13 companies that had already been ordered to halt operations, but had continued anyway, FMCSA said. Also included were three other companies that were in the process of applying for authority to operate.
But the apparent main targets of the year-long investigation were three companies: Apex Bus Inc., I-95 Coach Inc., and New Century Travel Inc., umbrella companies that oversaw "a broad network of other bus companies," according to the FMCSA "out of service" orders against the companies.
Federal investigators allege multiple safety violations including vehicles not regularly repaired or inspected and drivers who were unqualified. In particular, the companies showed "a continuous pattern" of using drivers who did not have valid commercial driver's licenses and others who had "hours of service" violations – driving more hours than permitted, FMCSA reported in its "out of service" orders. The companies, it said, also lacked alcohol and drug testing programs for drivers.
“These aggressive enforcement actions against unsafe bus companies send a clear signal: If you put passengers’ safety at risk, we will shut you down,” US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
In directing the action, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro added in a statement that "the egregious acts of these carriers put the unsuspecting public at risk, and they must be removed from our highways immediately.”
FMCSA began investigating the carriers operating along I-95 after a series of deadly bus crashes in spring 2011. Several bus companies were ordered to shut down last summer. Further investigations found other problems and major safety violations with other I-95 carriers. Slowly, investigators painstakingly pieced together "links between the bus networks," FMCSA reported.
Motorcoach travel is considered a safe mode of highway travel, with 750 million passenger trips per year, the DOT reports. Motorcoach company inspections have more than doubled from 2005 to 2011. Even so, motorcoach crashes have resulted in an average of 19 occupant fatalities per year over the past 10 years. That does not include fatalities among pedestrians, drivers, and passengers of other vehicles involved in those crashes.
Bus industry officials were quick to support the DOT action.
“Companies that flout the laws and regulations that safe, well run bus companies follow, and the concentrated action to get these carriers shutdown and prosecuted are much appreciated," said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, in a statement. "FMCSA’s actions went far beyond random roadside inspections, and ABA very much supports these types of law enforcement efforts. We will continue to support FMCSA, and we urge our members to operate at the highest level of safety.”
Safety advocates, however, were not mollified.
"We always welcome DOT coming down hard, doing these strike forces and being tough on enforcement, but this is not going to solve the motor coach safety problem," says Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of consumer health and safety groups and insurance companies. "These motorcoach companies have become the over-the-road airlines for consumers – and DOT still is lacking tools it needs to make motorcoach travel between cities safe enough."
The chances of rogue carriers being caught are low already due to too few inspectors, Ms. Gillan says. Even if they are caught, "the fines slapped on them become the cost of doing business," she says.
Millions of people use inexpensive motorcoaches to travel between Boston, New York, and Washington, in particular, to transport athletic teams, for school trips, and seniors outings. Although the buses are popular and affordable, people who step on board don't know if the company is meeting standards, Gillan says. Even if they are, they "don't even have seat belts, much less air bags or roof-crush standards," recommendations made for decades by the National Transportation Safety Board, she says.
To try to boost motorcoach driver safety, the Department of Transportation on May 5 issued a new rule requiring anyone applying for a commercial driver's license to first obtain a commercial driver's learner's permit. The DOT has also proposed giving itself more authority to pursue unsafe "reincarnated" passenger carriers by establishing a federal standard "to help determine if a new carrier is a reincarnation of an old, unsafe carrier."
The DOT says it is trying. Indeed, enforcement is made tougher by companies operating like a whack-a-mole enterprise – shutting one branch in response to a federal order and then opening another, the DOT reports. Some "ghost" buses have logos that can easily be painted over with a new one, according to one Associated Press account.
In May 2011, a bus traveling from Greensboro, N.C., to New York City's Chinatown district swerved off I-95 in Virginia, hitting an embankment and overturning. Four passengers were killed and 50 were injured. The driver later admitted falling asleep, the AP reported.
The bus's operator, Sky Express Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., had already been cited for 46 violations of driver fatigue rules in two years, according to AP. The company was ordered closed, but days after the accident started up again under two new names – before being shuttered a second time by the FMCSA.
It took the massive investigation and shutdown to deal with this problem of bus companies being closed down, then popping up again.
In its Wednesday order shutting down Apex Bus Inc., the FMCSA alleges that the company "used its organizational and management structure, including obtaining multiple motor carrier registrations, to mask the true nature of its identity and operational scope."
As a consequence, the FMCSA order says, "Apex was able to continue motor carrier operations through reincarnated or affiliated carriers in flagrant violation of the Orders, unknown to FMCSA until FMCSA discovered the motor carrier’s true identity, organizational structure and operational scope through the ongoing investigation initiated in June 2011."