Personal Injury

Deadly Virginia bus crash prompts major change in federal enforcement

Another deadly discount bus crash that killed four people and injured 50 others in Virginia Tuesday morning evoked strong words from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who vowed to change the way motor coach companies are able to appeal the federal government’s decision to shut them down.

The bus that sparked this latest crackdown was traveling northbound on I-95 in Virginia early Tuesday morning when it crashed. The bus, owned and operated by Sky Express, had departed from Greensboro, N.C., and was bound for New York City’s Chinatown in when it hit an embankment and flipped over about 30 miles north of Richmond. Authorities believe the driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, dozed off behind the wheel. He was charged with reckless driving and later released on a $3,000 bond.

Tragically, Sky Express was on the verge of being shut down by federal regulators over several serious safety violations and an overall safety rating that classified it as performing worse than the majority of other carriers. According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, Sky Express is rated 62.9 percent worse in the unsafe driving category than commercial carriers with a similar number of inspections; 86.2 percent worse in driver fatigue violations; and 99.7 percent worse in driver fitness. The company racked up 24 violations in driver-fitness category during the last 2 years, including 14 for having non-English speaking drivers behind the wheel and 1 for a driver who did not hold a commercial driver’s license. Sky Express bus drivers have been cited for unsafe driving 17 times since 2009, mostly for speeding.

The Transportation Department gave Sky Express and “unsatisfactory rating” after it failed it a compliance review April 12 and proposed shutting the company down. The company was due to be closed permanently on Saturday, but it filed an appeal which bought it an additional 10 days to defend its safety record. Regulators agreed to extend the review period from May 28 to Tuesday, June 7, during which it found a number of additional drug, alcohol, and hours of service violations within the company.

The delay proved to be deadly, prompting Secretary LaHood to end the appeals process and close Sky Express immediately.

“There is no excuse for delay when a bus operator should be put out of service for safety’s sake,” LaHood said. “On my watch, there will never be another extension granted to a carrier we believe is unsafe.”

American Bus Association president and CEO Peter Pantuso indicated that safety inspections of motor coach companies and drivers were too few and the enforcement of safety regulations too weak.

“We’re glad to see that they were put out of service,” Mr. Pantuso told the New York Times. “What we would really like to see is, if this company has the safety record we’re looking at, companies like this should be completely shut down.”

“They had this long history of violations,” Mr. Pantuso told ABC News. “Why weren’t they put out of service?”