Friday, July 22, 2011

Random searches of passenger buses

There was a sad and highly-publicized fatal bus accident this year that, naturally, has led to a Congressional inquiry. As part of that inquiry, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration lamented that they do not have the authority to conduct road-side inspections of the many popular, inexpensive and convenient (okay, those are my words, not theirs) passenger buses that are in operation along the eastern seaboard (also referred to around here as "Chinatown" buses because they often stop in the chinatown areas of NY, Philly, and DC). From the Sun article:

But what Anne S. Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, told members she is seeking seems more than reasonable — bigger fines for companies that violate the law, the ability to regulate on-line brokers and to shutter so-called "reincarnated" companies with serious safety problems in their past.
That would seem more than justified given that half of all bus-related deaths over the past decade can be traced to operators with safety issues. Frequently, they involve drivers who work far more hours than federal regulations allow.
One way Congress could dramatically improve bus safety would be to allow random road-side inspections. Small charter bus operators often don't have a fixed terminal or regular schedule, so conducting inspections otherwise can be challenging.
And, it concludes:

While no one is suggesting bus transportation return to the rate-and-route-setting days prior to deregulation, passengers have a right to expect a bus to be safe and their driver to be qualified and suitably rested. Buses provide 750 million passenger trips per year, more than all the commercial airlines combined. That's simply too great a risk to be ignored, particularly as more people opt for low-cost bus travel in these challenging economic times.
From reading this, you might reasonably conclude that there have been many more bus accidents and that they are all due to fly-by-night operations using illegal practices. Not true.

I've taken these buses and had a positive experience. Moreover, it was very inexpensive and it made it possible for me to take a trip that I otherwise could not have afforded at the time. I do know people who have had bad experiences on these buses (breakdowns, no A/C, etc...), but there is a good deal of word-of-mouth information about these companies. Thousands of passengers take these buses every day (I'm estimating from the number of passengers the buses can hold times the number of buses and frequency of trips they take a day). But, there are only infrequent - albeit, tragic - crashes. There is no systemic problem in this industry - just some stories that make good headlines and politicians like capitalizing on this type of thing.

The (partial) deregulation of trains, trucks, planes, and buses in the late 70's/early 80's has made it possible today for even the some of the poorest Americans to travel from city to city. Congress has in a short period of time turned air travel into a humiliating and burdensome experience (while keeping prices accessible through bailouts and subsidizing security) and the bureaucrats in Washington are salivating over the chance to have more power over buses, too.