Operations

Paying the Price for Going Rogue

Nicole Schlosser
Posted on February 2, 2010
The NTSB made 19 recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), including prevention of driver fatigue by requiring electronic recording devices on all coaches.
The NTSB made 19 recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), including prevention of driver fatigue by requiring electronic recording devices on all coaches.

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.

Federal Crackdown

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.

It also permanently strips a person's ability to drive any bus if found without the proper licensing and certifications, and prohibits the state PUC from issuing a new permit or certificate to operate if the officer, director, or owner of the coach company has run a company that had the authority to operate permanently removed.

In addition, fines have increased substantially. The CBA worked alongside Assembly Member Ted Leiu's (D-Torrance) office on the law's new fees. There is now a $7,500 maximum fine for violating the law, and a maximum $10,000 fine after conviction for operating without a license, Eisentrager says.

Operators that try to re-emerge when they apply for new permits through the California PUC will mostly fail, since the same names listed from the previous company will be tracked. Because operators are required to apply with the PUC to be able to operate in California, their computerized system stores all operator data, including previous charges. Some states don't have that mechanism, Eisentrager points out, and they depend solely on U.S. DOT records.

For California operators concerned about how the new law will affect them, ensuring their companies are operating legally should be enough to avoid problems, Riddington says.

"There's nothing in the law that changes the ramifications of licensing; it's just making sure your company is licensed and that you operate under the letter of the law." He advises coach carriers to make sure that all their drivers are licensed and that anybody that has direct control of drivers - such as a trainer, dispatcher or operations manager - read this law and understand it. Drivers need to be responsible for their own licensing and any special certifications, he adds. "Ninety-nine percent of drivers do it ...the law is going after operators that tend to get in trouble, but six months later pop up again, and put the general public at risk."

The new law puts more teeth into the CHP's ability to impound a vehicle in question, which used to be an action that was considered to be more in the realm of the PUC.

"Previously, the CHP would shut the bus down, but the company would bring another driver out, and away it goes," Eisentrager says. As of 2010, the officer can impound the bus, charge a fine to the operator to have it returned, investigate the incident, and charge a hefty fine if the carrier cannot prove that the oversight was unintentional.

Running Rogues Off the Road: What You Can Do

Most motorcoach carriers are running safe operations, keeping up to date with training and certifications, and generally have nothing to worry about in regard to federal laws. But for operators that want to know what they can to do to help keep rogues off the road, ABA's president Peter Pantuso has some advice.

Report Suspicious Behavior
Pantuso says that any company has the ability to go to either their state enforcement officials or the FMCSA and report unscrupulous practices that they may have witnessed.

In most cases, they don't have to be identified. As long as there's some kind of proof they can provide, state and federal officials are willing to follow up on those claims, he says.

Dig Around
When partnering for a job and hiring another bus company to pick up work, operators should seek out information, especially safety and maintenance records on the company being sub-contracted. Companies using other partners need to know that they are just as liable for any accident as they would be if the passengers were on their coaches. The federal database www.safersys.org allows carriers to research by company name or DOT number, and get safety records, hours of service violations, and insurance history.

Related Topics: accident reduction, driver behavior, driver safety, legislation

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