The federal Department of Transportation closed down a North Carolina bus company just hours after one of its buses rolled over on a Virginia highway, killing four passengers. Unfortunately, the shutdown came months after the company had amassed one of the worst safety records in the U.S. Over the past two years, Sky Express of Charlotte, N.C. repeatedly violated federal rules that require bus companies to keep fatigued drivers from getting behind the wheel and to make sure their drivers have proper licenses, medical certificates and English-language skills. You may be shocked to learn that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees bus and truck safety, had access to all of the information relating to the company’s bad safety record. But for some reason, the agency really dropped the ball on this matter, allowing the bus company, in spite of its awful safety record, to stay in business.
Sky Express’ 99.7 score in driver fitness indicates that its record was worse than 99.7% of the nation’s 3,900 bus operators. The company had a score of 86.2 in fatigued driving, and had been caught seven times since October 2009 allowing drivers to work excessive hours.
After a safety review of Sky Express, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on April 12th proposed shutting the company down. Sky Express appealed the shutdown proposal on May 11th and promised improvements. The agency rejected the appeal two days later. Sky Express could not be shut down immediately, according to the agency, because it says it had to wait 45 days from when it proposes a shutdown. After 45 days – on May 27th – instead of shutting down Sky Express, the agency decided instead to investigate new safety concerns. The probe was extended by ten days to “further investigate the carrier.”
Virginia State Police blamed the crash on driver fatigue, a longstanding concern of federal officials and safety advocates, and a cause of several major bus crashes in recent years. The Sky Express bus was carrying 58 passengers from Greensboro, N.C., to New York City’s Chinatown when it ran off Interstate 95 near Richmond about dawn and rolled over. Fifty-four people were injured in the incident. The driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, who suffered minor injuries, was charged with reckless driving. He was sent to jail.
The sequence described by Virginia police of this most recent bus accident is not new or unique. The same story – a tired driver drifting off a highway – caused a 2008 bus crash that killed nine passengers in Utah and a 2004 bus crash that killed 14 passengers and the driver in Arkansas, according to reports by the National Transportation Safety Board.
In a sharp rebuke to his own department, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood got involved and made sure the North Carolina bus company was finally shut down. LaHood had this to say about his own agency:
I’m extremely disappointed that this carrier was allowed to continue operating unsafely when it should have been placed out of service.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency of the DOT, is in charge of bus and truck safety. There has been evidence of a heightened scrutiny of the nation’s 3,700 intercity bus companies, which carry 750 million passengers a year and have been plagued by a string of fatal crashes this year. LaHood criticized the agency for stretching its investigation beyond May 28th and ordered an immediate halt to such extensions, which federal rules allow but do not require before a bus company is closed. Eight bus companies facing closure have received extensions this year, according to the DOT. Hopefully, Sec. LaHood will clamp down on his own people, and will require them to do their jobs. From the content of his statement, delivered to the media, it appears the Secretary is serious and means business:
There is no excuse for delay when a bus operator should be put out of service for safety’s sake. On my watch, there will never be another extension granted to a carrier we believe is unsafe.
The safety agency does in-depth examinations of companies that accumulate the most safety violations in random roadside inspections. It says violations alone cannot be the basis to shut down a company. The agency targets oft-cited companies for more thorough reviews and can issue a closure order after a review. LaHood says he plans to propose in December that the safety agency be allowed to close bus companies with excessive safety violations and without a fuller review.
There are numerous examples of the serious safety problem concerning driver fatigue. One good example is the March 2nd bus crash near New York City that killed 15 passengers. Investigators are looking into whether fatigue caused that crash. The company operating that bus, World Wide Travel of Brooklyn, N.Y., had five violations of fatigued-driving rules in the 22 months before the crash. As we have reported in prior issues of the Report, bus drivers can drive up to ten straight hours before being required to take eight hours off, and can work 15 hours, which includes non-driving time, before having to take an eight-hour break. The time-off requirements simply aren’t adequate to ensure drivers are rested. It’s time for the federal government agency with the responsibility of regulating to do its job!
Source: USA Today
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