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Enough with the forums.
Early last month, the National Transportation Safety Board hosted a two-day gathering of various federal regulators, safety experts and industry officials to discuss the implementation of longstanding recommendations to reduce bus and truck accidents. Among the items on the agenda: a proposal, dating back to 1968, to install seat belts on all passenger buses.
Within a few weeks of the forum, an accident on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg vividly - and tragically - illustrated the consequences of inadequate regulation, sluggish oversight and years of hemming and hawing over how to do better.
Four people were killed and 50 others were injured in the crash.
The driver, who allegedly fell asleep behind the wheel, has been charged with reckless driving and four counts of involuntary manslaughter.
It turned out that the owner of the bus, the Charlotte, N.C.-based discount line Sky Express, was scheduled to be shut down a few days before because of a long history of safety violations, including driver fatigue. But federal regulators had granted the company, which also operated in Hampton Roads, a 10-day extension to appeal the decision.
After the crash, the feds belatedly closed the bus line. Then the company attempted to resume ticket sales under another name. The feds had to intervene again.
As The Pilot reported in its June 12 edition, charter buses are big business in America. They transport more than 750 million passengers a year, nearly equal to the number of people served by airlines.
But enforcement of basic safety regulations appears to be lax or nonexistent. As the Pilot story pointed out, a bus line can start up operations and run for as long as 18 months without a safety evaluation. And a state police official who oversees inspections in Hampton Roads conceded that inspections of discount carriers are rare and the companies themselves are difficult to track.
Last week, six U.S. senators - including Virginia’s Mark Warner and Jim Webb - sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood criticizing his department for “uneven, inconsistent and ineffective” enforcement of safety laws.
There have been at least 10 bus crashes in 2011 that killed 20 people and injured at least 130 others, the lawmakers wrote. They’re pushing for stricter rules regarding time off and rest for bus drivers and for installation of tamperproof record-keeping systems.
It’s a familiar call for action. For three years, a bipartisan group of senators has pushed for more safety measures, including seatbelts for all passengers. The only seat equipped with a belt in the Sky Express bus accident was the driver’s seat. He emerged unharmed.
Some industry groups have fought stricter regulations, arguing that it would drive up costs for consumers. That’s probably true, but the current let-the-passenger-beware attitude is beneath American standards.
Decades of mulling over options for bolstering safety have led nowhere. When a company in trouble feels free to rename itself and begin selling tickets within days of a fatal accident, it’s clear the federal regulators have lost control. It’s time for Congress to take the wheel.
Landmark News Service