In recent weeks, federal authorities have shut down four motor coach operators for presenting an "imminent danger" to the public. Unqualified bus drivers, poorly kept records, and even instances of allowing passengers to ride in bus luggage compartments were among the myriad safety violations that caused the offending companies to be shut down.
Whether the actions will actually keep the companies out of business is another question. Such charter operators have a penchant for resurfacing under a new name — but with the same dangerous ways of doing business.
Since January, there have been six bus crashes resulting in 25 deaths, a string of accidents that has rightfully raised alarms in Washington. While bus travel has long been regarded as one of the safest modes of transportation in this country, the rise of discount charter operators and wholly unregulated web sites that broker tickets for these companies is a relatively new threat.
At a hearing held last week in Washington, members of the House committee that oversees transportation and infrastructure appeared divided on whether the growing problem warranted additional regulations. Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, in particular, advised his colleagues not to embrace rules that "punish the good companies almost more than the bad companies."
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.
At last week's hearing, a bus industry spokesman blamed recent problems on a "few bad actors." Safety experts don't disagree with that assessment but believe it's up to the industry to accept regulations that will allow those unsafe operators to be weeded out.
It was opposition from the industry that last year killed a House-passed bus safety bill in the Senate. The legislation would have, among other things, required buses to have seat belts, reinforced roofs and anti-ejection windows, improvements that National Transportation Safety Board officials have been recommending for years.
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.