Bus deaths prompt uneasy questions about responsibility

Posted on February 17, 2012 by Nicole Schlosser

I’m usually excited when a story that I have followed or reported on for METRO makes national news. A few months ago, though, that was not the case. One night, CNN was on the TV in our living room, with a headline emblazoned on the screen referencing the death of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) drum major Robert Champion, allegedly beaten in the back of a motorcoach as part of a hazing incident conducted by his peers.

Since the Nov. 19 incident, more information has come out, with the family of the victim suing motorcoach operator Fabulous Coach Lines of Branford, Fla. The family claims that bus driver Wendy Millette was complicit in Champion’s death. Lawsuit records, according to The Orlando Sentinel, say that Millettte saw Champion vomiting in the parking lot and forced him to return to the bus, where he was subjected to more hazing. Also in the lawsuit, the Sentinel reported, are claims from a driver of another Fabulous Coach Lines bus who saw Millette's bus rocking from side to side on the night of the incident and asked her what was happening. Millette told him "to ignore the activity and move on."

He was not a passenger on the bus where the hazing took place – Bus C. He had traveled on the trip from Tallahassee to Orlando on another bus. Additionally from the Sentinel, “Some drivers, the suit alleges, had complained to company officials about hazing incidents on Bus C and on other buses before Nov. 19 and were instructed to ignore them – that ‘FAMU was paying for it and could do what they want.’"

However, Fabulous Coach Lines has maintained its innocence and is disappointed that it is being targeted, telling the press that Millette did not see any of the hazing, and that it is not responsible for the conduct of individuals riding the buses.

Meanwhile, California is targeting party buses, reacting to an incident from 2010: the death of a 19-year-old man, who, after leaving a party bus, crashed his car. His blood alcohol was three times the legal limit. Currently being deliberated in the state Senate is Assembly Bill 45, The Passenger Charter-party Carriers Act. 

The bill would require drivers of limousines operated by a charter-party “under a valid certificate or permit” to find out if any of the passengers are under the age of 21 years, and if so, read a statement to them about the consumption of alcoholic beverages being unlawful, require them to sign the statement, and, if the passenger has been found to have been drinking alcohol during the ride, immediately terminate the contract of hire and return the passenger to the point of origin.

The carrier may also be subjected to “specified civil penalties, based on the number of offenses, for conviction of a driver, or any officer, director, agent, or employee of the carrier, of a violation of the Vehicle Code that prohibits storage of an opened container of an alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle,” according to aroundthecapitol.

Issues with party buses are happening outside of California, too. One Midwestern school, Davenport, Iowa-based St. Ambrose University, recently banned a party bus company from its campus out of concern for the students and “their responsible and legal use of alcohol,” cbs4qc.com reported. The operator of the bus company countered that by picking up students it is preventing drunk driving.

I just wonder whether there was anything more that could have been done by the carriers in training that could have prevented these tragic incidents. Then again, drivers cannot be expected to control every aspect of every passenger’s behavior. Will more legislation or banning party buses from campuses help? What do you think about these incidents?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "A toast to finding love on transit" here.

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