US Should Have Shut Bus Company Before Crash, NTSB Says

U.S. regulators’ failure to shut
down discount bus operator Sky Express Inc. after finding
extensive safety violations was a contributing cause of a fatal
2011 crash, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled.

Sky Express, which was based in Charlotte, North Carolina,
and operated from Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, was closed
days after the early morning May 31, 2011, crash outside
Doswell, Virginia that killed four. The Federal Motor Carrier
Safety Administration missed multiple opportunities before the
accident to shut down a carrier that didn’t follow basic safety
procedures, the board said.

“It wasn’t just the bus driver asleep at the wheel,” the
safety board’s chairman, Deborah Hersman, said today as the
board met to vote on what caused the accident. “If you can’t
get the worse of the worst off the road, that is a harsh
judgment against the agency.”

The safety board’s findings come as the FMCSA, part of the
U.S. Transportation Department, is trying to crack down on
unsafe bus operators. The department got expanded legal
authority to go after bus lines with extensive safety problems,
including stiffer fines, in a transportation policy bill
Congress passed June 29.

The Sky Express crash was caused by a driver falling asleep
and a company that didn’t manage fatigue or keep track of its
drivers, the safety board said.

‘Entirely Preventable’

Sky Express was operating after being cited for 204
violations in 94 roadside inspections in the 10 months before
the accident, according to records the NTSB made public as part
of the crash investigation.

FMCSA had conducted four safety reviews in four years at
Sky Express, unusual for an agency that inspects 2 percent to 3
percent of bus companies a year due to limited resources. Sky
Express wasn’t flying under the radar, Hersman said.

“The crash we discuss today should never have happened,”
Hersman said. “It was entirely preventable.”

The Sky Express crash was the third in a span of 11 weeks
along I-95 between Virginia and New York last year. Those
crashes sparked a yearlong investigation that resulted in an
unprecedented enforcement sweep in May, in which the bus
regulator closed 26 companies, many of them operating to and
from New York’s Chinatown, as imminent safety hazards.

Safety Hazards

The NTSB today recommended that the truck and bus agency
change its rules to force new companies to show that they
understand U.S. regulations and have safety practices in place
before they begin to operate. Current law allows companies to
begin running buses immediately, subject to a follow-up review.

FMCSA should also change its rating system to make it
easier to shut unsafe operators, the NTSB said. The board first
made that recommendation in 1999.

The four passengers who died in the Sky Express crash were
crushed after the bus roof collapsed during the rollover. The
NTSB reissued a recommendation that the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration develop regulations for better occupant
protection in buses, as well as stronger roofs.

Sky Express didn’t have written safety policies or a
driver’s handbook on drug and alcohol use, seat belts and mobile
phone use, the NTSB found. Its only criteria for hiring drivers
was that the applicant held a commercial driver’s license and
was 21 years of age or older, it said.

Kin Yiu Cheung, the driver in the Sky Express crash, was
hired in July 2010 with no previous commercial driving
experience, according to the NTSB. He was previously employed as
a restaurant delivery driver.

Rated ‘Unsatisfactory’

When executives of Sky Express met with U.S. bus-safety
regulators for an audit in March 2011, problems were clear,
according to audit documents obtained under the Freedom of
Information Act.

One driver worked 11 consecutive days without a rest
period, according to the documents. Four of 10 drivers couldn’t
understand enough English to identify their employer. An
insulin-dependent driver made a 938-mile run without medical
clearance. All those infractions violated U.S. law.

Inspectors rated the carrier “unsatisfactory,” meaning it
had to close in 45 days unless it could prove it had fixed the
problems. It didn’t, the documents show, yet the agency gave Sky
Express a 10-day extension. The crash happened during the
extension period.

When the FMCSA, which regulates all intercity bus services,
ordered Sky Express off the road after the accident, the agency
cited the same violations behind the “unsatisfactory” rating,
documents show.

Sky Express had also received an “unsatisfactory” rating
in 2009, agency records show. The company satisfied the agency
that it had corrected the issues and was allowed to stay in
business. A 2010 audit resulted in a “satisfactory” rating.

Low Expenses

Sky Express charged customers $30 for a one-way trip
between Durham, North Carolina, and New York, compared with $55
to $126 for a ticket on Firstgroup Plc (FGP)’s Greyhound Lines, the
largest U.S. bus company. The company stayed profitable by
keeping expenses low. A driver on the nine-hour trip would make
$75, according to audit documents.

Thirty-three people were killed in 13 fatal bus crashes in
the U.S. in 2011, according to data compiled by Advocates for
Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group. Many of
those accidents involved carriers offering fares as low as $1
each way that picked up and dropped off passengers at curbsides
in East Coast cities, typically operating to and from Chinatown
neighborhoods.

Departures Increase

Accidents increased as bus departures grew 32 percent last
year, making it the fastest-growing mode of U.S. travel,
according to a study DePaul University in Chicago released in
December.

The Washington-based American Bus Association, which
advocates for companies like Greyhound and Stagecoach Group
Plc (SGC)’s Megabus, pushed to give the Transportation Department the
ability to impound buses.

The new law increases the fine for carrying passengers
without operating authority from $2,000 per violation to $25,000
per violation. The U.S. transportation secretary will be able to
revoke operating authority on his own initiative after becoming
aware of any kind of common ownership, common management or
family relationship with a carrier that’s been shut down.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jeff Plungis in Washington at
jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Bernard Kohn at
bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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