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Tragic accidents, such as the Sherman, Texas bus crash that killed 15 members of a church group in August 2008 and the Soledad, Calif. tour bus overturn that killed five French tourists and injured dozens more in April 2009, have focused much attention on operators who weren't fit to be on the road.
In response, federal organizations are targeting not only unsafe driving behaviors, company negligence, and oversight, but also rogue and reincarnated operators.
Last December, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its findings on the January 2008 fatal crash of a motorcoach near Victoria, Texas, which was caused by a driver falling asleep at the wheel. The NTSB made 19 recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and several other organizations.
Those recommendations aim to protect passengers by requiring seat belts on all motorcoaches; addressing driver fatigue by requiring electronic onboard recording devices; ensuring safer driver performance by forbidding texting and the use of cell phones; and enhancing oversight of carriers attempting to evade sanctions and of unsafe motorcoach companies.
Normally, a coach operator applied for operating authority and paid a $300 fee. The U.S. DOT granted authority and moved on. Little effort was taken to make sure that the companies applying for authority didn't have a checkered past.
Now, the DOT is reconsidering that policy. "They're taking a look under a microscope at people who are applying for operating authority: who they are, other partners involved, have they been affiliated with companies that were operating beyond the margins of safety. Those are things that weren't being done a few years back," says Peter Pantuso, president, American Bus Association (ABA.) "Hopefully the states will be doing the same thing," he adds.
California Gets Tough
In California, operators that get shut down under one name and then reopen under another name need the one-strike law to open their eyes, says Dan Eisentrager, vice president of the Western Region for Coach America and a California Bus Association (CBA) committee member.
Last year, the CBA worked on two new bills that stemmed from the Colusa, Calif. accident in October 2008 that killed 10 passengers and injured at least 30 others. The motorcoach driver did not have the proper licensing to carry passengers, and the vehicle had an invalid license plate, according to the California Highway Patrol (CHP). The bills, AB 636 and AB 951, work together as the "one-strike law." The legislation took about one year to pass, and became effective Jan. 1, 2010. It is the strictest law of its kind to be passed in the U.S.
California Assembly Member Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) contacted the CBA, which sent letters of support to get the bills into regulation and approved. It passed the senate 26-6 and the state assembly 65-0, says Chris Riddington, president of the CBA.
The "one-strike law" permanently revokes the authority of a charter bus company to operate if found without the required state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) permit, or knowingly employs a driver who doesn't have the required California driver's license and certifications.