A bus operated by Sky Express Inc. crashed in Virginia in May, killing four… (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — Privately operated "curbside" buses are seven times as likely to be in a fatal accident as other interstate buses, according to a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Curbside buses pick up and drop off at their own designated curb spots instead of main transportation terminals, the way larger bus companies do. Their low fares have helped make them the fastest-growing mode of transportation since 2005, according to the report — something that has prompted larger motorcoach companies such as Greyhound and Coach USA to create curbside bus subsidiaries like BoltBus and Megabus.
The report said the problem with the growing industry was that safety inspectors couldn't keep up with rampant driver fatigue problems or a host of safety violations associated with companies that frequently changed names to avoid inspections. Only 2,327 state and federal personnel are available to inspect 53,097 buses, and they have responsibility for other inspections as well.
To complicate the tracking of company safety, even consumers buying tickets online can find it hard to figure out what company they are using. Federal agencies don't have the authority to regulate online ticket brokers, who are not required to disclose the names of companies they work with.
"Business and safety practices within the growing curbside bus industry create challenges for enforcement authorities and consumers alike when it comes to separating the safe operators from the unsafe operators," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said in a statement.
Both driver fatigue and changing company names were problems with a bus that ran off Interstate 95 in Virginia in May on its way to New York, killing four people and injuring 50. Sky Express Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., which already had at least 46 driver fatigue violations in the previous two years, was ordered to shut down. But within a week of the crash, the company was caught trying to operate under two other names.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) asked for the report in March after a speeding bus returning passengers to New York from a night of gambling ran off an elevated highway and hit a utility pole. The bus was split from end to end, killing 15 people and injuring 18.
Schumer has recommended that a letter-grading scale be available to consumers so they can research how safe a company is before riding it.
Right now, the closest available tool to do that is located on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Assn.'s website. Consumers can look up companies near them by state or ZIP Code and see violations from the last two years. The list highlights which companies have recent violations as well as details of each violation.
The report says smaller companies are generally more dangerous, but even larger companies have problems. Megabus, which just expanded into 60 cities and is increasing its number of double-decker vehicles, has had six driver fatigue violations in Illinois in the last two years, according to the safety association.