Union Chief: Want Safer Inter-City Buses? Raise Driver Pay. (Bus Owners Don't Agree.)

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Chinatown Bus. (photo by Naomi A. / Flckr Creative Commons.)

(New York, NY - Jim O'Grady, WNYC) Three tour bus accidents in the Northeast this month have left dozens of people injured and seventeen dead. The inevitable calls for reform have followed, along with crackdowns on discount inter-city carriers through spot-checks of their buses.

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said all of that is appropriate but one measure to raise bus safety has been overlooked: better pay for drivers. His call for a minimum wage for drivers has drawn opposition, however, from a national bus owner trade association that says the industry is thriving because the competitive market, not government intervention, has set rates.

Hamilton says large bus companies like Peter Pan, Greyhound, Bonanza and others have the best safety records because drivers are paid higher wages--and that low pay on the discount lines cause some drivers to cut corners.

"Drivers are paid so low that they end up breaking the rules and they far exceed the maximum number of hours that drivers are allowed to operate," he said. "They become fatigued and they crash the buses."

U.S. Department of Labor stats from 2009 show the mean wage for bus drivers in New York is almost $23 dollars an hour, which comes to a little more than $47,000 dollars a year.

Hamilton says that’s true if you're a unionized driver at one of the larger carriers. He said drivers for the discount carriers, often called Chinatown buses, are paid a lot less.

His case is backed up by Michael Belzer, a professor of economics at Wayne State University who’s been studying the issue for ten years. Belzer has looked at a lot of federal safety data and found that for every 10% increase in driver pay, the probability of a crash is lowered by 40%.

But of course the discount bus industry has mainly been booming because of one thing: cheap tickets. For example, if you take an Amtrak train from New York to Philadelphia, you'll pay anywhere from 50 to $120. Hop on a discount bus and you'll get there for $10. But Belzer says those rock-bottom rates create an economic tension.

“If you pay more money, the drivers and the carriers will be safer," he said. "What we don’t know is if the market actually supports that pay rate. For the carrier to pay more money, they have to charge more money."

Belzer says it’s difficult for a tour bus operator to improve safety by increasing driver pay if he knows competitors won’t be doing the same: “As long as other people can undercut our rate and be unsafe and get away with it, then they will continuously take business away from us. They’ve had to bring their rates back down again—and they don’t want to.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union says the answer is to establish a minimum wage for bus drivers.

That idea does not go over well with Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, a trade group in Washington, DC, that lobbies for bus company owners.

"A lot of regulations are already in place," he said. "It's a matter of enforcement." He said a better idea would be to require drivers to be trained to a national standard before receiving a commercial license.

New York State is cracking down with surprise inspections of buses at police checkpoints--and pulling a lot of buses off the road. On Friday, Governor Cuomo's office announced that an investigation by the Department of Motor Vehicles lead to the arrest of eleven bus drivers who'd obtained driver's licenses by using aliases.

State lawmakers are considering a bill  that would set up a permit system for buses that pick up and drop off passengers on New York City streets. Backers of the bill say if the permit application required tour bus operators to state what they pay their drivers, at least those wages would be known—and the link between pay and safety could be more thoroughly examined.