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On Thursday, the City Council will take an important step in signaling its support for enhanced safety requirements for discount and low-cost tour bus operators. Two resolutions will come before the full Council for a vote, Resolution 892 and Resolution 1000, which call upon our counterparts at the federal and state level to increase regulation of an industry that has been plagued by tragic accidents across our nation.
Members of the Council have joined together to support Resolution 892, which calls on Congress to pass “The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2011.” If passed, this legislation will improve safety for passengers on intercity buses by requiring buses to have seat belts, stronger windows, crush-resistant roofs, and safety inspections for all new bus companies within the first 18 months after operations begin.
We are proud that this legislation has received the support of the Council. At the federal level, “The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act,” also known as the Lewis Bill, is supported by President Barack Obama, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and U.S. Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velázquez.
Over the past year, there have been an unacceptable number of fatal accidents involving intercity buses, including two horrific crashes within a three-day period this March, which resulted in 17 fatalities and numerous injuries. The first crash occurred in the Bronx and killed 15 people, while the second occurred in New Jersey and killed two people. Both buses provided service to or from Chinatown. The loss of life hit very close to home and renewed the push from New York elected officials for expanded oversight of intercity bus industry. In the six months of 2011 alone, there were at least ten motorcoach crashes resulting in more than 20 fatalities and over 130 injuries nationwide. This stands in stark contrast with the number of overall number of highway deaths, which has steadily fallen since 2005.
It is disturbing that federal oversight of these intercity bus carriers is almost non-existent. Federal law prohibits routine inspection of buses while they are en route, which constrains inspections of overnight trips and allows checkpoints at rest stops to be easily evaded. Carriers have been known to simply transfer their vehicles and drivers after receiving poor safety ratings; and according to reports by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the required documentation from the owners behind these bus companies is difficult to come by.
Over 2000 low-cost, discount buses operated by 75 different companies leave New York City on a daily basis. The majority of curbside bus companies rely on brokers, who are not subject to federal jurisdiction, to sell tickets. These brokers are not required to disclose the name of the carrier to consumers, which makes it almost impossible for passengers to research a company’s safety record.
In its November 2011 report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that low-cost providers who pick up passengers at the curb had the higher overall accident rate and death and injured person rate. From January 2005 to March 2011, the fatality rate for curbside pick-up operators was 1.9 persons killed for every 100 vehicles, as compared to 0.2 for carriers that operate out of a terminal. Curbside carriers also had higher violation rates with regards to fatigued driving and driver fitness. The N.T.S.B. concluded that accidents involving curbside carriers where more likely to result in injury or death. The report also mentioned that motorcoach safety was strongly influenced by the carriers that own these buses and the drivers that operate them.
To this end, on Thursday the City Council will also vote on a companion resolution, Resolution 1000, calling on New York State Assembly and the Governor to pass and sign into law legislation requiring intercity bus drivers to undergo background checks.
Under current state law only school bus drivers are required to undergo a background check for employment. Since March 2011, the New York State Department of Transportation has conducted over 1,200 random checks of interstate buses which have resulted in 124 bus drivers being taken off the road, with 14 percent of these drivers having improper or suspended licenses. The New York State Senate voted in support of this legislation earlier this year.
At a time when gas prices are rising and the cost of travel overall is increasing, low-cost, discount tour buses are a quick, efficient, and cost-effective travel options for hundreds of millions Americans. Intercity bus travel grew by 24% in 2010 and does not show signs of slowing down. We cannot act quickly enough to ensure that this growing industry is subject to basic safety and reporting regulations.
This op-ed was co-written by Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council; Councilmember Margaret Chin, representative for District-1, Lower Manhattan, and primary sponsor of Resolution 892; Councilmember James Vacca, Chair, Committee on Transportation; and Councilmember James Gennaro, primarily sponsor of Resolution 1000.