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Transportation Nation

Feds Shutter D.C. Party Bus

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

WAMU

The party is over for another tour bus provider, following a federal shut down order declaring it an imminent hazard. Not only did the company fail to inspect and maintain its vehicles, the government says it knowingly let a driver who had tested positive for a controlled substance continue to get behind the wheel.

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Transportation Nation

What Does Acquittal of Chinatown Bus Driver Mean for Safety?

Friday, December 07, 2012

The World Wide Travel Bus that crashed March 2011, killing 15. (NTSB Photo)

The driver of a casino bus that crashed, killing 15, is not guilty of manslaughter. Prosecutors had argued Ophadell Williams was so sleep-deprived and drowsy behind the wheel that it was as reckless as if he were drunk.

But a Bronx jury was not convinced. Williams faced 15 counts of manslaughter and was acquitted on all of them. He was found guilty of one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which he has already served. He has to pay a fine of $500. When he heard the verdict, Williams covered his face with his hands and wept.

Though the consequences are relatively light for Williams,  the inter-city bus industry has suffered a considerable shakeup.

The Crash

It was a gruesome crash that instantly raised the profile of dangerous driving conditions at many so-called Chinatown buses, the fastest growing mode of inter-city travel.

Here's how the crash went down. In March, 2011, Williams was on a dawn run to New York from a Connecticut Casino, driving for World Wide Travel, a company with a track record of pushing drivers to work long hours.

A report by the Federal Motorcoach Safety Administration found that in the moments before crashing, he’d been driving 78 mph. As we've previously reported:

"According to the report, the bus swerved to the right off the highway, crossed an eleven-foot wide shoulder and smashed into a three-foot-tall steel guardrail. The bus plowed through the guardrail for 480 feet as it toppled onto its side. The bus’ windshield hit the post of a massive highway sign, which sheared the bus in two along the base of the passenger windows almost all the way to the rear. The bus came to rest on top of the crushed guardrail, its wheels in the air, facing the highway."

The Bronx crash was one of three inter-city bus crashes in the Northeast in March, 2011, which killed a total of 17 people and injured dozens of others.

There were more to come. A bus from North Carolina bound for New York flipped on its roof in late May, killing four. Operator Sky Express was shut down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration within hours. Bloomberg reported that Sky Express had accumulated so many violations that it could have been shut down prior to the crash.

In July, a pair of fatal crashes in New York — one inbound from Canada that left the driver dead and another from Washington that killed two — occurred within days of each other.

There were 24 motor coach crashes last year, resulting in 34 fatalities and 467 injuries, according to an unofficial tally kept by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The industry was deemed unsafe by many. As confused travelers tried to figure out just who regulates Chinatown buses, the government took notice.

The Response

World Wide Travel was shuttered in June 2011, but the owner continued to operate bus service for other companies he owns, according to The New York Times. The practice of "reincarnation" had plagued regulatory efforts to punish the worst of the worst bus companies.

Not to be stopped by it's own regulations, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration the agency that oversees bus safety, along with the National Highway Transportation Safety Board ratcheted up investigations and actions against unsafe bus companies.

In May of 2011, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued rules requiring new bus lines to undergo safety audits before they can sell their first ticket. And bus drivers could lose their commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws even while operating their own private car.

In July 2011, Anne S. Ferro, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, told Congress she needs more enforcement powers, including the ability to inspect every long distance bus at least once a year and to conduct surprise safety stops while buses are en route. She proposed paying for the additional enforcement through raising the fee for a company to obtain an operating license from US DOT.

She pointed out, a bus license costs $300 — $50 less than it costs a street vendor to sell hot dogs in Washington, DC. Ferro said she’d also like to see the fine for a bus safety violation raised from $2,000 to $25,000.

Inspections alone are unlikely to solve the problem, she argued. There just aren't enough of them. There are 878 federal and state inspectors able to conduct safety reviews of 765,000 bus and truck companies, or an average of slightly more than one inspector for 1,000 companies, the report said.

For a while it seemed like the tempers had cooled, and the regulators were backing off. Then the crackdown came.

Crackdown

In June 2012, the U.S. DOT shuts down 26 bus companies that operate along the most popular routes for so-called Chinatown buses: the I-95 corridor from New York to Florida. The DOT called it the "largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history.

Federal safety investigators found multiple violations, including a pattern of drivers without valid commercial licenses and companies that didn't administer alcohol and drug tests to drivers. Ten people – company owners, managers and employees – are ordered to stop all involvement in passenger transportation operations, including selling bus tickets.

The intersection in Chinatown in New York City previously most associated with this class of bus was transformed, no longer a bustling hub roaring with the sound of diesel engines and ticket sellers competing for business with dueling calls of prices and destinations. It became a quiet side street and has remained so since.

What's to Come

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made safety one of his top issues, is advocating for legislation with stronger teeth.

The Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety (BUSES) Act of 2011 called for a tighter controls and enforcement of bus driver screening, including calling for federal oversight of state requirements for commercial licenses.

The Motorcoach Safety Act of 2009 was also revisited after the 2011 string of crashes. It requires new buses to add seat belts and reinforced windows that prevent passengers from being ejected during an accident. The bus industry opposed both bills on cost grounds and neither became law.

New York City, which cannot regulate interstate bus safety, took the step to regulate bus stop permitting, giving more control to neighborhood leadership, known as community boards. Since then, there have not been new clusters of curbside buses competing with each other.

And as Chinese-run Chinatown buses remain discreet in New York's Chinatown, mainstream bus companies like Greyhound are expanding their curbside businesses, actively meeting with community boards to add stops in Chinatown itself.

(This report includes excerpts and descriptions from previous reporting on TN, by Alex Goldmark, Jim O'Grady and Tracie Samuelson.)

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Transportation Nation

Curbs Empty in NY's Chinatown After Bus Crackdown

Friday, June 01, 2012

Local mini-buses take over what is usually a bustling Chinatown bus stop at East Broadway in Manhattan. (Photo by Alex Goldmark)

The biggest curbside bus stop in Chinatown has no buses.

The popular East Broadway stop under the Manhattan Bridge — typically abuzz with ticket sellers, passengers and idling sparsely labeled motorcoaches — was no more than a quiet side street Friday afternoon, a day after the federal government shut down 26 bus operators in the single largest safety crackdown of the industry.

Two blocks away, he Chinatown office of New Century Travel, one of the operators shut down in the sweep, was shuttered on Friday afternoon. The company operated routes to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., leaving no clear option for a Chinatown to D.C. bus trip. That route was one of the first to become popular -- originally with college students and other very price sensitive travelers -- a key step in helping the curbside bus model spread from a cheap alternative to Greyhound for supercommuting members of the Chinese community and into the a mainstream mode of travel it has become. Curbside buses are the fastest growing mode of travel in the nation.

Speaking in Chinatown Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that over the course of a year-long investigation, his agency learned these companies were "blatantly and repeatedly" violated federal safety laws, including using drivers without valid commercial licenses and failing to do drug and alcohol testing.

"Shutting them down will save lives," LaHood said.

Teams of officials for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, armed with legal orders declaring the bus operations imminent hazards to public safety, swooped down Wednesday on companies based in six states: Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Officials withheld details about the operation until Thursday.

The shutdown orders were aimed at the companies' headquarters and at bus pickup locations. Most of the 233 bus routes serviced by the companies either departed from or terminated in New York City's Chinatown district. The DOT says the routes shut down served 1,800 passengers a day.

Not all companies were shut down, Fung Wah bus, arguably the most well known brand of Chinatown bus which serves trips between New York and Boston, continued operations unchanged, as did other lines serving Boston, and at least two serving trips from New York to Virginia, South Carolina and Baltimore.

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Transportation Nation

BREAKING: US In Biggest Crackdown in Federal History on Inter-City Buses

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A 2011 bus crash spurred interest in the safety of long distance buses (NTSB photo)

(New York, NY -- Tracey Samuelson, WNYC)  UPDATED Twenty-six bus operators that transported more than 1,800 passengers a day along Interstate 95 between New York and Florida have been closed for safety violations in what federal officials say is the government's largest single safety crackdown of the motor coach industry.

Speaking in Chinatown Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that over the course of a year-long investigation, his agency learned these companies were "blatantly and repeatedly" violating federal safety laws, including using drivers without valid commercial licenses and failing to do drug and alcohol testing.

"Shutting them down will save lives," LaHood said.

Teams of officials for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, armed with legal orders declaring the bus operations imminent hazards to public safety, swooped down Wednesday on companies based in six states: Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Officials withheld details about the operation until Thursday.

The shutdown orders were aimed at the companies' headquarters and at bus pickup locations. Most of the 233 bus routes serviced by the companies either departed from or terminated in New York City's Chinatown district.

Besides the shuttered bus operations, 10 people - company owners, managers and employees - were ordered to stop all involvement in passenger transportation operations, including selling bus tickets, the Transportation Department said.

The shutdowns are the culmination of a yearlong investigation by the safety administration that focused on three primary companies: Apex Bus Inc. and I-95 Coach Inc., both of New York, and New Century Travel Inc. of Philadelphia. Each of the three companies oversaw a broad network of other bus companies, officials said. The other bus operations targeted in the crackdown were companies that were affiliated with one of the three primary companies but have other names.

Phone calls and emails to the three companies seeking comment were unanswered.

The shut-down companies are "very, very bad actors," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday.

"This is a huge, big deal for us today," LaHood told reporters on a conference call. "This isn't some overnight deal -- this is something we've been working on, and we want people to know bus safety is one of our top priorities."

Safety officials have long complained that their attempts to put unsafe bus operators out of business are frequently thwarted by "reincarnated carriers" that simply reopen for business under a different name or in a different location, or that transfer their buses to an affiliated company that shares similar ownership.

Buses belonging to such rogue companies are known in the industry as "ghost" buses because they are frequently painted white with relatively little decoration to make it easier to repaint them with a new company name.

The motor coach industry transports more than 700 million passengers a year in the U.S., roughly the same as the domestic airlines.

Bus industry officials said they have been urging the government to crack down on unsafe operators and were aware of the investigation before the shutdowns.

"These businesses have been doing all they can to operate far below the accepted level of safety," said Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the American Bus Association.

Wednesday's shutdowns applied to nine active bus companies; 13 bus companies that had lost permission to operate but were continuing to operate anyway; three companies that were in the process of applying to the government for operating authority; and a bus ticket seller.

Federal safety investigators found all of the carriers had multiple safety violations, including a pattern of using drivers who didn't have valid commercial driver's licenses and failing to administer alcohol and drug tests to drivers, according to the safety administration.

The companies also operated buses that had not been regularly inspected and repaired, and their drivers were violating work schedule and rest requirements and didn't have proper qualifications, officials said.

The safety administration began investigating the network of carriers operating along I-95 following a series of deadly bus crashes last spring.

On March 12, 2011, a bus returning to Chinatown from an overnight trip to a casino in Connecticut hit a barrier in the Bronx, toppled on its side and slid into a sign pole with such force that it was sheared in half from front to back.

Of the 32 people on the bus, 15 were killed, and the rest were injured, some severely. The driver, Ophadell Williams, has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

Documents released by federal accident investigators show the bus was speeding at the time of the accident and that Williams' driving privileges had been suspended 18 times over 20 years. World Wide Travel of Greater New York, the bus company, was ordered to shut down for safety violations after the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to hold a meeting Tuesday to determine the probable cause of the crash.

In May 2011, a bus traveling from Greensboro, N.C., to Chinatown veered off I-95 in Virginia, hit an embankment and overturned. Four passengers were killed, and 50 were injured. The driver acknowledged falling asleep, according to court documents.

The bus operator, Sky Express Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., had been cited for 46 violations of driver fatigue rules in two years. The company was ordered to shut down after the accident, but within days it resumed business under two new names, according to the Transportation Department. That prompted a second shutdown order from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Several other bus companies were also ordered to shut down last summer after a comprehensive compliance review of their operations.

"The investigation of those operators uncovered additional problems and serious safety violations with other I-95 carriers, and ... investigators have been working diligently ever since to establish the links between the bus networks," the safety administration said in a statement.

But the safety administration, which works with states to enforce safety regulation of interstate bus companies, is overburdened, an NTSB report released last fall said. There are 878 federal and state inspectors able to conduct safety reviews of 765,000 bus and truck companies, or an average of slightly more than one inspector for 1,000 companies, the report said.

There were 24 motor coach crashes last year, resulting in 34 fatalities and 467 injuries, according to an unofficial tally kept by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

(With the Associated Press)

Here's the full DOT press release.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced today it has shut down 26 bus operations, declaring them imminent hazards to public safety.  This action is the largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history.  Additionally, FMCSA ordered 10 individual bus company owners, managers and employees to cease all passenger transportation operations, which includes selling bus tickets to passengers.  The bus companies transported over 1,800 passengers a day along Interstate-95, from New York to Florida.

Following a year-long investigation, FMCSA shut down three primary companies - Apex Bus, Inc., I-95 Coach, Inc. and New Century Travel, Inc. – that oversaw a broad network of other bus companies. The 26 shutdown orders apply to one ticket seller, nine active bus companies, 13 companies already ordered out of service that were continuing to operate and three companies attempting to apply for operating authority. The various companies are based out of Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Federal safety investigators found all of the carriers had multiple safety violations, including a continuous pattern of using drivers without valid commercial driver's licenses (CDLs) and failure to have alcohol and drug testing programs.  In addition, the companies operated vehicles that had not been regularly inspected and repaired. The companies’ drivers also had serious hours-of-service and driver qualification violations. 

These many safety deficiencies, individually and in combination, posed a serious safety threat to passengers and motorists on our roadways.

“These aggressive enforcement actions against unsafe bus companies send a clear signal:  If you put passengers’ safety at risk, we will shut you down,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “Safety is and will always be our highest priority.”

“The egregious acts of these carriers put the unsuspecting public at risk, and they must be removed from our highways immediately,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. “With the help of multiple state law enforcement partners, we are putting every unsafe bus and truck company on notice to follow the safety laws or be shut down.”

In addition to the Imminent Hazard Orders, FMCSA is taking further steps to ensure the bus companies they shut down today cannot continue to operate under other names.  Under a new FMCSA rule, FMCSA has revoked the carriers’ operating authority and linked the active companies to other companies previously placed out of service.  This new rule, published in April, expands FMCSA’s authority to take action against unsafe motor carriers that attempt to evade enforcement by “reincarnating” into other forms or by illegally continuing their operations through affiliate companies.  FMCSA will continue to work closely with local, state and federal law enforcement officials to ensure these companies remain out of service.

FMCSA began investigating the network of carriers operating along I-95 following a series of deadly bus crashes last spring.  FMCSA ordered several bus companies to shut down last summer after a comprehensive compliance review of their operations.  The investigation of those operators uncovered additional problems and serious safety violations with other I-95 carriers, and FMCSA investigators have been working diligently ever since to establish the links between the bus networks.

Over the last several years, the DOT has taken aggressive efforts to strengthen motorcoach safety and enforcement. The DOT has doubled the number of bus inspections of the nation's estimated 4,000 passenger bus companies -- from 12,991 in 2005 to 28,982 in 2011. Staying committed to the Motorcoach Safety Action Plan, in January 2010 FMCSA banned texting by commercial drivers, and in November 2011 the agency prohibited commercial drivers from reaching for, holding or dialing a cell phone while operating a commercial motor vehicle (CMV). Earlier this year, FMCSA also released the SaferBus mobile app to give travelers a quick way to view a bus company's safety record before buying an interstate ticket or booking group travel.

Earlier this month, FMCSA and its state and local law enforcement partners conducted safety inspections of motorcoaches, tour buses, school buses and other commercial passenger buses in 13 states and the District of Columbia. This effort resulted in over 2,200 safety inspections and the successful removal of 116 CMV drivers and 169 buses from the roadway for substantial safety violations.

Congress is also currently considering surface transportation legislation which, if passed, would adopt several new safety policy proposals to further protect bus customers, including:  

  • Granting FMCSA greater authority to pursue enforcement action against unsafe “reincarnated” companies by establishing a single national standard for successor liability that eliminates the loophole allowing bus and truck companies that have been shut down for unsafe operations to recreate themselves;
  • Eliminating the jurisdictional gap that prevents FMCSA from  directly regulating passenger carrier brokers, including ticket sellers that are not also motor carriers;
  • Enhancing FMCSA and its state partners’ authority to inspect buses at locations with adequate food, shelter and sanitation facilities for passengers;
  • Requiring new passenger carriers to undergo a full safety audit before receiving operating authority; and
  • Raising the penalty from $2,200 to $25,000 a day against passenger carriers that attempt to operate without valid USDOT operating authority.

Consumers are also encouraged to report any unsafe bus company, vehicle or driver to the FMCSA through a toll-free hotline 1-888-DOT-SAFT (1-888-368-7238) or FMCSA's online National Consumer Complaint Database.

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Transportation Nation

US DOT Says No To Commercial Drivers Licenses For Farmers

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

(Billings, MT – YPR) – The US Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said today it has no intention of requiring farmers and ranchers to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive farm equipment or haul livestock trailers on roads.

"We want to make it absolutely clear that farmers will not be subjected to new and impractical safety regulations," said U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari. "The farm community can be confident that states will continue to follow the regulatory exemptions for farmers that have always worked so well."

FMCSA launched a review on the enforcement of regulations on agricultural operators to ensure consistent access to exemptions for farmers and to ensure public safety.

Some farm groups, however, raised an outcry.  They said proposed rules under consideration could have required farmers and ranchers to obtain a CDL, a medical card and fill out a log book as if they were  long-haul semi drivers.

FMCSA says it received about 1700 comments by the August 1, 2011 deadline.

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro says the vast majority of comments called for the agency to continue to allow states to grant exemptions for agriculture.

“We want to make crystal clear that we are not imposing any new regulations,” says Ferro.

That’s good news, says Montana Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Jake Cummins. We were assured that their intent was to improve safety so our goal was to demonstrate that in fact we operated in a safe environment already and that the closest agencies to that process were the states not the federal government back in Washington, DC,” Cummins said. “So we think this is a good outcome clearly our efforts to persuade them were successful and we’re happy to hear that.”

 

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Transportation Nation

In Surprise Inspections, US DOT Finds 1 in 10 Coach Buses Unsafe

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This in from the US DOT:

U.S. DOT Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and State Law Enforcement Agencies Conduct Thousands of Surprise Passenger Carrier Safety Inspections Nationwide;  Strike Force Inspections Remove 289 Unsafe Passenger Buses and Drivers

WASHINGTON – U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and its state and local law enforcement partners across the nation recently conducted 2,782 surprise passenger carrier safety inspections over a nine-day period that resulted in 289 unsafe buses or drivers being removed from our roadways.

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