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Safety advocates say laws remain lax on curbside operations like the Sky Express bus that crashed last May in Caroline.
BY SCOTT SHENK
After last year's deadly Sky Express bus crash in Caroline County, there were calls for, and promises of, better enforcement and safety regulations on the interstate bus industry.
The primary focus was on "curbside" bus companies that skirt the rules, causing dangerous situations like the Sky Express crash in which four died.
In the past year, enforcement has been ramped up, as seen by last week's multi-state roundup of alleged rogue bus companies. But proposed regulatory and safety laws continue to languish amid congressional budget battles.
"I think a lot of things have happened," said Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association. "I think the [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] has learned a lot from the Sky Express accident."
Still, he added, plenty more needs to be done.
Curbside bus companies make up a small percentage of the interstate bus industry. Most bus companies work out of terminals. The curbside companies have cheaper fares and no central location. Instead, they pick up passengers at designated places along interstate highways.
According to an October 2011 study by the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency reported that only 71 of 4,172 bus companies are the curbside variety.
But, the report stated, the fatal crash rate is much higher for those discount bus companies.
Pantuso said they're "a small piece, but it's a piece that gives the industry a bad name."
The Sky Express crash happened shortly before 5 a.m. on May 31, 2011.
The bus left Greensboro, N.C., the previous night and was headed for Chinatown in New York City, but ran off Interstate 95 in Caroline County, hit an embankment and overturned, killing four women and injuring another 53 people.
The driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, 38, has said that he fell asleep. He and a Sky Express dispatcher, 41-year-old Zhao Jian Chen, each face four counts of manslaughter. Chen is accused of forcing Cheung to work after the driver reportedly said he was too tired.
Sky Express epitomized the problems with the curbside bus companies, which authorities have a difficult time tracking.
Before the May 2011 fatal crash, Sky Express had been cited for 46 fatigued-driver violations in 105 safety inspections over a two-year period, according to the motor carrier agency. The violations included instances of drivers logging more hours than are allowed and not submitting proper records of hours spent behind the wheel.
The company was one of the worst violators of driver-fatigue guidelines in the industry.
According to the motor carrier agency, Sky Express also had other issues, such as vehicle maintenance deficiencies, unsafe driving and unqualified drivers who could not speak English.
After the Caroline crash, Sky Express was shut down.
Advocates and politicians alike pushed for stronger regulations of the bus industry.
Jackie Gillan, vice president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, has criticized authorities, saying bus safety has been ignored for too long.
In a March letter to members of Congress, she urged them to support the U.S. Senate's Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which includes improved interstate bus safety and regulatory requirements.
"These commonsense and cost-effective measures will direct the National Highway Safety Administration to issue overdue and lifesaving occupant protection standards recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board as many as 40 years ago," Gillan wrote.
The regulations focus on bus safety as well as regulations to help federal authorities keep rogue bus companies from continuing to operate without meeting standards.
Gillan added in the letter that family members of crash victims, consumer and safety groups and Greyhound Bus Company CEO David Leach support the safety measures in the bill.
But those proposed regulations are mired in congressional gridlock without an end in sight.
While the regulations remain in limbo, federal authorities have ramped up enforcement efforts.
The increased enforcement actually began years ago. The Federal Motor Carrier Administration has said that surprise inspections of interstate buses have doubled since 2005.
There was a series of surprise inspections prior to the Sky Express crash.
And following the crash, the motor carrier administration started a yearlong investigation of curbside bus companies.
The investigation came into focus Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the Sky Express crash, when the feds shut down 26 interstate bus operators in what it called the biggest safety crackdown in the agency's history.
Also in May, federal and state authorities ran a 13-state safety inspection operation of motor coaches, tour buses and school buses, the administration reported.
Investigators inspected 2,200 vehicles and removed 116 drivers and 169 buses from the road for safety violations. Virginia was one of the states involved in the operation.
"I think a lot of progress has been made," Pantuso said in a telephone interview Friday. "What happened yesterday was proof of that."
Still, he said, federal authorities could use more power to do such things as seize offending bus companies' property so they can't "reincarnate" under another name. This is a common problem and something Sky Express allegedly did days after its fatal crash in Caroline County.
Pantuso said it will take much more work to get rid of the rogue bus companies.
"This," he said, "is only the tip of the iceberg."
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436
--Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles
*Through June 1