Road killers: Rating buses for safety

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Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) raised the ire of interstate bus companies by asking the government to rate their safety with letter-grades, from A to F. He wants the report-card-style grades posted on bus company websites and on the windows of individual buses.

Schumer is responding to a string of deadly bus crashes in several states this year. Case in point: In May, a Sky Express Bus headed for New York City's Chinatown crashed in Virginia, killing four. The company was operating despite 46 violations and four previous crashes, reports the NY Daily News.

Congress has already given the Department of Transportation the responsibility to evaluate and publicly report on bus safety records. The problem is that the agency buries the safety information deep inside its website and presents the information in a hard-to-read way.

It took me nearly an hour to find the government's full list of interstate bus companies and their safety records, which you can see for yourself here, on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration site. Click on any bus company's name, and key details will pop up.

A yellow triangle with an exclamation mark inside is a bad sign. It means the company has been cited with too many serious road safety violations during the past year or it had too many "interventions" by government officials. Under Schumer's plan, such a bus would have to flash a poor grade, like a "D", in places where potential riders could see it without having to spend an hour on a government website.

Except for the yellow triangles, the government's safety information for buses is baffling. An especially cryptic set of numbers are the "percentages" given in five categories for on-road performance: unsafe driving, fatigued driving, driver fitness, substance abuse, and vehicle maintenance. The higher the score, the worse the company's record, which I find counterintuitive. For example, Greyhound has a 7 percent rating for unsafe driving, which sounds bad. But the statistic means that its drivers have a better safety record than 93 percent of companies of a comparable size.

Bus safety isn't a glamorous issue, but it is important. In a recent online poll, 37 percent of Budget Travel readers said they thought buses weren't safe enough. So let's hope a report card rating system is put into place soon.

Budget Travel usually avoids politics, but we're pleased that Schumer has taken up this cause, just as we saluted him in our Extra Mile Awards last year for "working to pass the Block Airlines' Gratuitous (BAG) Fees Act, which aims to close a complicated tax loophole that allows the airline industry to profit from fees on 'nonessential' items, which include carry-ons."

Critics of the senator will point out that the bill never went anywhere in Congress and that his interest in bus safety may only be for grandstanding purposes of getting his name in the headlines. I suppose whether the government ever starts issuing bus safety report cards depends on whether voters reach out to his office and voice their support the cause.

As for bus safety, the next step for officials would be to agree on what to do with companies who receive poor ratings, because heaven forbid we shut any of them down.


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