Tragic Bus Crash Raises Questions of Safety

A tour bus crash on Interstate-95 early over the weekend that left 15 passengers dead has raised questions about safety regulations on low-cost bus carriers and what more can be done to prevent such accidents.

The bus, operated by World Wide Tours, was returning to Chinatown from a trip to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. As it crossed from Westchester County into the Bronx, the bus reportedly swerved several times, flipped on its side and slammed into a sign pole at high speed, shearing off a portion of the roof.

The driver said the bus was clipped by a tractor-trailer. But eyewitnesses counter that claim. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also cast doubt on the story during a Monday morning press conference.

"There does not seem to be any evidence of a truck hitting the bus," he told reporters. "That's the only thing that we really know so far."

For years, there have been calls to regulate the many low-cost bus companies that have flourished with curbside pick-up as an alternative to larger, more expensive carriers like Greyhound and Peter Pan. State and federal regulations exist, including a requirement that drivers get eight hours of rest between every ten hours of driving. But they are difficult to enforce.

Chris Crean, vice president of safety and security at Peter Pan Bus Company, said his company does few late-night trips like the one that resulted in a crash on Saturday. "You're assuming a great deal of risk because you're messing with people's sleep cycles," he said.

Other accidents have drawn scrutiny to Chinatown bus companies in the past. On September 5, 2006, a bus from the popular Fung Wah company overturned outside Boston, injuring 34. In 2007, a Chicago to New York bus operated by OK Travel Bus ran off the road and flipped-over, killing two people and injuring 32.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, World Wide Travel has two other injury-causing accidents on record within the past two years. Investigations into the specific causes of Saturday's crash are ongoing.

World Wide Travel declined to comment.

As the industry has grown — 2,000 such bus trips now arrive in or depart from New York every week, according to the Department of City Planning — the impetus for regulating it has gained momentum.

Last month, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver introduced a bill with State Senator Daniel Squadron that would create a permit system for inter-city buses. The bill would also prohibit the buses from picking up and dropping off passengers on city streets except at locations approved by the MTA in consultation with community boards. The regulations are meant to bring order to what the bill's sponsors' term the "Wild West atmosphere" of the inter-city bus business.

This morning, Senator Charles Schumer joined City Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, in whose district the crash occurred, at a press conference on the steps of City Hall to call for greater federal oversight of the industry.  

Schumer said it's been six years since he started lobbying for more oversight.

"In 2005, I called on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to increase surprise inspections, hire more inspectors, provide greater disclosure of safety rankings and more aggressively provide oversight to bus drivers," he said. "Despite this effort, the administration's regulation of this industry leaves much to be desired."