The bus industry is not having a very good year. Tuesday's crash of a tour bus that killed four was only the most recent of a string of highly publicized tragic crashes where driver fatigue or other avoidable problems appear to be a factor.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has come under fire for perceived lax oversight of these carriers, including this week by boss Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation. When it came out that Sky Express, the discount bus operator involved in Tuesday's crash, should have been shut down by the agency, but was still running because the FMCSA had granted it an extension, he had a few choice words.

"There is no excuse for delay when a bus operator should be put out of service for safety's sake," LaHood said in a widely reported statement. "On my watch, there will never be another extension granted to a carrier we believe is unsafe." He ordered the FMCSA to end the practice of extending the appeals period for unsafe carriers.

Stormy Skies

In the wee hours of the morning Tuesday, a bus operated by North Carolina based Sky Express flipped over on I-95 in Virginia. Four passengers were killed, dozens more were injured, and traffic was backed up for hours. The driver was charged with reckless driving, and police say his fatigue was a factor in the crash. According to local media reports, the bus driver has been charged nine times in the last eight years for violations in Virginia for speeding, failure to use seat belts, following too closely, failure to obey highway signs and stopping or yielding while entering a highway. Virginia state police officials are looking into passengers' accounts that the driver was allegedly running behind schedule.

Later the same day, the FMCSA announced it was shutting the company down, issuing an unsatisfactory safety rating and putting it out of service. Turns out the agency had recently done full compliance review of the company, finding multiple violations in areas of driver qualification requirements, drug and alcohol compliance, hours of service and vehicle maintenance.

When they made the announcement, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said in a statement that "FMCSA will not tolerate passenger bus companies that endanger public safety. Working side-by-side with our North Carolina state law enforcement partners, we took strong action to shut down this unsafe bus company."

It soon came out, however, that the compliance review was done in April, the original unsatisfactory rating issued April 12, which would have been effective May 28 -- several days before the crash. The agency, however, decided to extend the date by 10 days in order to conduct a second compliance review, after Sky Express officials requested an upgrade based on corrective action the carrier had taken.

It's that extension that LaHood ordered the agency to stop. Although the wording of the announcement only mentioned bus companies, Washington Editor Oliver Patton had a chance to talk to FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro Thursday, and the agency is reviewing the idea of applying that ban to trucking companies, as well. The 45-day appeals period is set in law. The 10-day extension is a regulatory prerogative.

The Sky Express crash is not an isolated incident. In March a World Wide Tours bus crash killed 15 on a New York highway when its roof was sheared off. USA Today reports that World Wide was on a special "alert" list but hadn't received a full safety audit for two years.

After that, the FMCSA vowed to get tough. During a two-week period last month, the agency and its state and local law enforcement partners conducted more than 3,000 surprise passenger carrier safety inspections, putting 127 drivers and 315 buses out of service. It also initiated 38 full safety compliance reviews on commercial passenger bus companies.


The fact is, the FMCSA simple does not have enough personnel to do compliance reviews on every carrier in the country -- truck or bus. Those that are done are usually triggered by serious safety violations spotted during roadside inspections and the like.

In a speech earlier this year, former FMCSA Administrator John Hill recalled the expectations when the agency was first formed. "I remember clearly, Congressman Oberstar, who was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told me the FMCSA should be a model agency for safety, just as the FAA was for airplanes. He would regularly make that comparison."

Just a few problems with that expectation, Hill said. Capitol staffers, he said, "would talk to me as if we were an agency capable of regulating 500,000 carriers just as the FAA regulated their 10 to 20 common carriers."

It's this challenge that prompted the FMCSA to develop the CSA (Compliance, Safety, Accountability) enforcement program, which allows it to use data crunching to help it more efficiently identify unsafe carriers.

What's next?

There also may be indirect effects from all this.

The New York crash from March as well as another bus crash in New Jersey earlier this year prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to hold a public forum on truck and bus safety in May, to review the progress that has been made since the NTSB held a series of public hearings on the matter back in 1999-2000.

A bus crash was at play in that earlier set of hearings, as well -- a 1999 Mother's Day crash in New Orleans that killed 22 people. The driver in that crash was found to have major health problems that had gone undetected by regulators. Some critics are now pointing out that some of the reforms discussed during those hearings have been slow to be put in place. (The NTSB can only investigate accidents and make recommendations; it cannot initiate regulatory rulemakings on its own.) But you can bet that the agency's work on driver health issues had its genesis in those hearings.