Just after the horrific March 12 bus crash in the Bronx that killed 15 people and injured 17 others, federal and state regulators coordinated a sweeping crackdown of commercial motor coach companies in New York State, resulting in about 20 percent of buses and drivers being pulled out of service and reinforcing the adage that people usually have to die before appropriate action is taken.
But while the New York crackdowns removed many unsafe commercial vehicles and drivers off the road, they are unlikely to do any good in the future unless authorities maintain that beefed-up level of scrutiny. Safety regulation enforcement is so lax in most parts of the country that commercial bus companies and their drivers pulled out of service because of their safety record have little difficulty getting back on the road under a different alias. In fact, that is usually what they do. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that when unsafe companies are ordered to close, many reopen under a new name with the same people in charge.
Ophadell Williams, the driver of the bus that crashed in the Bronx, used an alias twice when stopped by authorities in order to protect his driving record, his commercial driver’s license, and his job. Mr. Williams also served prison and jail time in his younger years, leading state officials, including the governor of New York, to question his qualifications in possessing a commercial driver’s license and driving buses full of passengers.
A system riddled with insufficient safety measures and lax enforcement makes it possible for dangerous bus companies to stay on the road. Just two days after the fatal Bronx crash, another bus crash on the New Jersey Turnpike killed two people and injured many more. Days after that, a bus loaded with tourists overturned on a New Hampshire interstate, injuring 23 passengers.
Super Luxury Tours, the owner of the bus that crashed in New Jersey, operated without having had a full review since 2009, even though the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) repeatedly cited it for drivers who sped and broke other traffic laws, were unfit to drive because they could not speak English, or did not have the medical documentation to prove they were fit to drive a commercial bus. After the bus crash in New Jersey, the FMCSA shut the company down.
But Super Luxury Tours is one of many bus companies operating with critical safety violations in New York and nationwide. New York’s Journal News reports that of 386 motor-coach carriers operating in New York, about 15 percent have received an alert in one of five basic categories set by the FMCSA: fatigued driving, driver fitness, vehicle maintenance, unsafe driving, and controlled substances/alcohol. The Journal News also reported that 44 New York bus companies, including Super Luxury Tours, received satisfactory ratings despite having an FMCSA safety alert on them.
“It’s life-threatening when you’re seeing this tremendous growth in the number of people that are relying on and using motor coaches and yet they’re not afforded the most basic safety protections that they’re afforded when they get into their car,” Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the Journal News.
Of the 75 alerts FMCSA issued to New York companies, most (8 percent) were for fatigued driving, one of the possible causes being investigated in the Bronx bus crash.