Senators Press Agency to Improve Bus Safety

Richmond Times Dispatch (VA)

June 8, 2011

Virginia Democratic Senators Jim Webb and Mark R. Warner are among six senators asking U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to swiftly implement safety standards to prevent fatigued bus drivers from getting behind the wheel, after a crash last week in Caroline County, VA, killed four people and injured dozens.

A letter the senators sent to LaHood on Monday urged him to step up efforts to remove unsafe motor carriers from U.S. roads, ensure bus drivers are skilled and well-rested, and protect passenger safety. ?The pattern of enforcement by DOT has been uneven, inconsistent and ineffective,? the senators wrote.

The senators said in their letter that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) failed to enforce its statutory authority to take out of service Sky Express Inc., the carrier involved in the May 31 crash.

The senators wrote that, while they appreciated the agency?s recent stepped-up enforcement efforts, the crash in Virginia and one in Washington state last month that killed two people and injured 21 ?clearly indicate more is needed.? A DOT spokesman said LaHood will respond to the senators? letter but couldn?t say when.

Virginia State Police said the driver of the bus in the Caroline crash, 37-year-old Kin Yiu Cheung, apparently fell asleep, swerving off the road before the bus flipped onto its roof. He has been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of four female passengers from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Warner said Monday that while the number of companies that transport passengers up and down the East Coast exploded over the past 10 years, no one has kept tabs on them. ?A lot of these companies were cramming as many bodies as they can onto the bus without appropriate oversight of the drivers or oversight of the vehicles,? Warner said.

He said that as a former entrepreneur, he often has wondered how the companies could afford to charge so little for the bus fares. ?This may be how they afford to do it?they cut corners.?

Sky Express, he said, is clearly a ?fly-by-night company? that was not held accountable until the most recent tragedy happened. ?The public has a right to expect a level of safety and competence,? Warner said. ?Clearly, this company didn?t pass either of those tests.?

Sky Express has been cited by federal regulators for numerous violations, including more than a dozen for hiring drivers who can?t speak English. But federal regulators allowed the company to continue operating when they should have ceased its operations, LaHood said last week.

The FMCSA evaluated the company?s performance and issued a proposed ?unsatisfactory? safety rating April 12. Sky Express then issued an appeal, which the agency denied May 13. But the agency postponed making a final decision whether to take the company out of service, allowing it to continue to operate.

Sky Express was shut down after the Caroline crash, but days later, the Charlotte, NC-based company was repainting its buses and selling tickets under the names 108 Tours and 108 Bus, according to the FMCSA.

In the senators? letter, they asked the DOT to outline how they will require bus operators to comply with safety standards more quickly. The letter was also signed by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Brown is the lead sponsor of the proposed Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, bus-safety legislation a Senate panel passed last month. The legislation, which has not yet come before the full Senate, would require safety equipment, including seat belts, electronic stability control to prevent rollovers, stronger roofs and anti-ejection window glazing.

The legislation also would require electronic onboard record-keeping to prevent drivers from falsifying their log books and make enforcement of violations easier. In the Caroline crash, the driver?s seat was the only one on the bus equipped with a seat belt. Federal law does not require passenger seat belts on the buses.

The senators pointed to two apparent factors in last week?s crash, which closed Interstate 95 north for hours: driver fatigue and the DOT?s decision ?to give this clearly unsafe carrier a last-minute reprieve from closure, despite a pattern of safety failures and a determination that the carrier?s safety record is unsatisfactory.?

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