Congress looks at bus safety after string of fatal crashes

McClatchy NewspapersJune 13, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Two weeks after a fatal rollover bus crash in Virginia, Republicans and Democrats in Congress tried Monday to figure out how to crack down on rogue motor coach operators without over-regulating an industry made up predominantly of small businesses.

Federal transportation officials testified Monday to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that they have ended the practice of allowing problematic bus operators an extra 10 days to bring their companies into compliance without being shut down. That comes after the Department of Transportation gave Sky Express, of Charlotte, N.C., extra time to fix problems found in safety inspections in April.

The crash on Interstate 95 in Caroline County, Va., happened within that 10-day period. Four people died and 53 were injured.

Although inspections have increased in the past two years, the past three months have been one of the worst on record for the motor coach industry, with 23 deaths among crashes in Virginia, New Jersey, Washington state and New York, said Anne S. Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the motor coach industry.

But Ferro said she wants more regulatory authority over passenger bus companies, including in-route inspections and complete safety audits before buses hit the road. Federal officials also want to regulate online brokers, the websites that sell many low-cost, intercity tickets. And they want to increase penalties from $2,000 per violation to $25,000, she said.

Some members of the committee were skeptical.

"I hope we don't go overboard in reaction to a couple of bad operators," said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn.

Low-cost motor coaches are a growing and popular way to travel. According to the American Bus Association, 35,000 buses provided 723 million passenger trips in 2009. About half of those are for charter buses; another quarter are for city-to-city and rural transportation trips.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House transportation panel, said he called Monday's hearing because lawmakers want input on how to improve bus safety in a new, six-year transportation bill expected in the coming weeks.

But bus industry representatives and some members of Congress said too much regulation would hurt legitimate, well-run companies. Small companies with fewer than 25 motor coaches made up 95 percent of the industry and accounted for about 40 percent of passenger miles traveled, according to a committee memo.

"I want to make sure we don't come up with a bunch of regulations that punish the good companies almost more than the bad companies," said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.

And Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, pointed out that half the bus-related deaths from 1999 to 2009 involved companies that either shouldn't have been allowed to operate or had bus drivers who shouldn't have been allowed to operate a vehicle.

Buses now can be inspected at their origination point and at their destination. Ferro said federal officials want authority to conduct random in-route, roadside inspections as well, because it can be tough to track the origination and destination points of many small companies.

SkyExpress, for example, was run out of a Charlotte housing development. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the committee's top Democrat, urged the bus industry to find a compromise allowing for roadside inspections.

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