Bus Company Shut Down After Deadly Virginia Crash: Can New Regulations Help Stem Accidents?

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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A Virginia State Patrol cruiser sits in front of the aftermath of an early-morning bus crash that killed four people, in the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 in Carmel Church, Virginia, May 31, 2011.

Sky Express, the tour bus company operating a bus that crashed Tuesday morning — killing four people on its way from North Carolina to New York City — has been shut down. The news came just hours after the driver of the bus Kin Yiu Cheung, 37, was charged with reckless driving.

After ruling out mechanical errors or malfunctions, Virginia state police charged Cheung, of Flushing, N.Y., for his part in driving the tour bus off the side of the road, killing four women and injuring 54 other passengers. The bus operator, Sky Express, was also revealed to have a dismal safety record and several violations on its record. The company performed worse than 97% of all passenger bus companies within the last 12 months, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), evidence enough for the company to be ordered out of service.

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The Virginia accident is the latest in a string of tour-bus accidents in the past year, including a March 12 bus crash in the Bronx, N.Y. that left 15 people dead. The driver of that bus, Ophadell Williams, reportedly fell asleep, but Williams says that he swerved to avoid a tractor-trailer and hit a pole that tore off the roof of the bus. Both the Virginia crash and the Bronx crash occurred on I-95, which is notorious for being a dangerous highway to travel in many of the populous cities it serves because of traffic and poor road conditions.

But the rash of accidents isn’t simply about a need for improvements to roads. On May 5, the Department of Transportation and the FMCSA unveiled new measures meant to improve passenger bus safety, including requiring more rigorous testing standards for commercial driver’s licenses (CDL). Under new rules, anyone applying for a CDL must first obtain a commercial driver’s learner’s permit, which was not previously a requirement. The FMCSA also now prohibits the use of foreign language interpreters in the testing system to reduce the potential for testing fraud. This issue has become particularly significant in the wake of popular so-called Chinatown bus companies carrying passengers between cities like New York, Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia for bargain prices. The number of tour-bus companies operating in the various Chinatown districts has grown rapidly in the past several years and has not been highly regulated as a result.

Other provisions would require bus companies to pass a safety audit before receiving federal permission to begin operating. Surprise inspections over the past several months have pulled nearly 100 buses and more than 100 drivers off the road — an effort that will continue through the summer months when bus travel is higher than normal. The Department of Transportation also encourages passengers to research the safety records of bus companies they use on the FMCSA website.

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also announced that it would be easier for the government to strip divers of their CDLs if they violate drug or alcohol laws while operating a vehicle of any kind; before a bus driver could potentially keep his or her personal driver’s license even if he had been found to be under the influence while driving a commercial bus. A recent crackdown in New York reflected the government’s seriousness about policing negligent drivers. On May 9, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that 46 drivers of tour buses and other commercial vehicles were charged with felonies for holding CDLs even though they had other licenses suspended at the time.

But safety advocates say that while these are welcome efforts, other issues that need to be addressed are requiring buses be outfitted with seat belts and reinforced roofs and windows to prevent passengers from being ejected in rollover accidents.

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