Expert Commentary

National Transportation Safety Board: Report on curbside motorcoach safety

2011 study by the NTSB of data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as well as interviews, compliance reviews and inspections.

Once a transportation afterthought, intercity bus service has grown significantly in the last decade thanks to the proliferation of curbside bus companies. While their slice of the overall intercity travel market remains relatively small, growth rates are impressive — according to a DePaul University study, daily departures from the major players such as Boltbus and Megabus increased 32% in from 2010 to 2011.

The success hasn’t come without safety concerns, particularly in the wake of a 2011 bus crash in New York that killed 14 people. Troubling incidents have continued, however, and in February 2013, Massachusetts transportation authorities ordered all the buses of Fung Wah company off the road after the majority of their fleet failed safety inspections.

In response to the 2011 accident, the National Transportation Safety Board conducted a six-month safety study on the industry, “Report on Curbside Motorcoach Safety.” The 2011 study was based on data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) as well as interviews, compliance reviews and inspection reports.

The study’s findings include:

  • Compared to automobiles, travel by bus is relatively safe. “During 2009, the bus occupant fatality rate was 45 deaths per 100,000 accidents compared with 251 deaths per 100,000 accidents for passenger car occupants.”
  • Between 2005 and 2010, the average number of motorcoach accidents annually was 1,003. Thirty-two accidents were fatal, resulting in 44 deaths; 505 were nonfatal and 467 involved property only.
  • From January 2005 to March 2011, curbside carriers had 1.4 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles compared with 0.2 per 100 vehicles for conventional carriers — seven times the rate of fatal accidents. In part because of the buses’ size, most of the victims were occupants of other vehicles.
  • A related study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that 31% of intercity bus drivers involved in fatal accidents had been cited with driving errors. Those bus drivers implicated were more likely to speed, or be drowsy or asleep, than other drivers.
  • Smaller and more recently established curbside carriers were less safe than those that had larger fleets and a longer operational history. Those with 10 or fewer motorcoaches and in business for 10 years or less had higher rates of both accidents and roadside inspections and violations.
  • Resource limitations complicate efforts to ensure that companies offering curbside service operate safely. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and other authorities have just 878 personnel responsible for reviews for more than 765,000 motor carriers, a ratio of just 1.15 inspectors per 1,000 motor carriers.
  • Because curbside services don’t use traditional bus terminals and en route inspections are prohibited by law, inspection opportunities are limited. It’s also relatively easy for sanctioned carriers to reinvent themselves with a new name, repainted buses and shifted ownership.

The report recommends a number of steps to increase the safety of curbside buses, including assessing drivers’ qualifications, medical fitness and driving records; banning cell phone use while driving; requiring that companies employ qualified mechanics; and improving procedures for detecting companies that have been reincarnated under new names. They also suggest a number of technical enhancements for buses, including collision-warning systems and automatic braking, increasing vehicle crashworthiness, and improving fire protection.

Tags: safety, consumer affairs

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