Recently, Ophadell Williams, the driver of a motorcoach that crashed on an early morning run to New York from a Connecticut casino in March 2011, was acquitted of 15 counts of manslaughter by a jury in the Bronx.
Williams, who drove for World Wide Travel, a company with a track record of pushing drivers to work long hours, faced a manslaughter charge for each person who was killed in the accident. He was found guilty, however, of one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which he has already served. He was also fined $500.
There are several factors at the heart of this case, including a bus company that provided too little oversight — in its report, the National Transportation Safety Board found that Williams had almost no sleep in the three days leading up to the accident except for naps he took while the passengers were inside gambling.
The most important factor, however, is the public’s perception of the motorcoach industry.
Over the last several years, the United States Department of Transportation has taken aggressive efforts to strengthen motorcoach safety and enforcement, including doubling the number of bus inspections of the nation’s estimated 4,000 passenger bus companies — from 12,991 in 2005 to 28,982 in 2011.
It is also taking unprecedented measures to shut down companies that are an imminent hazard to the public, including the 26 bus operations owned by three primary companies that were shuttered last May. These operators were found to have multiple safety violations, including a continuous pattern of using drivers without valid commercial driver’s licenses and failing to implement alcohol and drug testing programs, as well as having serious hours-of-service and driver qualification violations.
Last December, after receiving feedback from the public and stakeholders throughout the industry, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) implemented 11 new improvements to its Safety Measurement System, which is the key component of its Compliance Safety Accountability program.
Over the course of the year, FMCSA also unveiled its SaferBus iPhone/iPad application — a first-of-its-kind app that gives customers a quick and free way to review a bus company’s safety record before buying a ticket or booking group travel — and its Fit, Willing and Able regulatory policy, which raises the safety bar for commercial bus companies seeking operating authority by providing the specific criteria the agency considers when it grants, withholds, revokes or suspends a company’s operating authority registration.
This is all in addition to new provisions in MAP-21, which include increasing fines for operating an unfit passenger coach company up to $25,000 for each violation. The bill also raises the penalties for evasion of regulations, opens subsequent violations to criminal prosecution and authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to take more drastic measures, including impounding the entire fleet, for repeat offenders.
All of these changes, designed to improve the public’s perception of the industry, can only be good for operators around the country who provide top-notch services to millions of passengers each year. The only way this industry can continue to compete with other modes of transportation is for the public to be assured that when they select a bus company they will always get the very best.