NTSB: Curbside carriers pose safety oversight challenge

Posted on November 1, 2011

In general, motorcoach travel is safe, according to a newly released study, however, the report found that curbside carriers with ten or fewer buses and carriers who have been in business for ten years or less, have higher accident rates and higher roadside inspection violation rates.

The report, the results of a six-month study on curbside motorcoach safety initiated following a series of accidents in this rapidly growing industry, was released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The study — requested by U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez following the March 12, 2011, bus crash in the Bronx that killed 15 and injured 18 more — highlights key safety issues related to this fast-growing segment of the transportation industry.

"Business and safety practices within the growing curbside bus industry create challenges for enforcement authorities and consumers alike when it comes to separating the safe operators from the unsafe operators," Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said during Monday's press conference.

"It's abundantly clear that the oversight of this industry has not kept pace with its growth and the consequences have been deadly," said Sen. Schumer. "The NTSB report is a wake-up call that we need a more rigorous regulatory regime and it provides a blueprint for how to fill the gaps."

This report is the first comprehensive evaluation of the motorcoach industry, with an emphasis on what are commonly known as curbside carriers. Curbside motorcoach operations consist of scheduled trips that begin or end at locations other than traditional bus terminals; most of these operations pick up or discharge passengers at one or more curbside locations. The study analyzed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) data and conducted field work, which included interviews, focus groups, and observations of compliance reviews and inspections.

Key study findings include:

  • In general, motorcoach travel is safe. However, curbside carriers with ten or fewer buses AND carriers who have been in business for ten years or less have higher accident rates and higher roadside inspection violation rates.
  • The fatal accident rate for curbside carriers from January 2005 to March 2011 was 7 times that of conventional bus operations: 1.4 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles for curbside carriers compared with 0.2 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles for conventional scheduled carriers.
  • The exclusion of buses from routine enroute inspections — especially of curbside carriers that don't operate from terminals — reduces opportunities to discover safety violations.
  • The FMCSA is overburdened. For example, 878 FMCSA and state personnel are responsible for compliance reviews for more than 765,000 U.S. motor carriers, a ratio of 1.15 investigators per 1,000 motor carriers.
  • Bus driver fatigue, a contributing factor in many accidents, is a continuing safety concern.
  • There is a lack of transparency in ticket sales. More than conventional carriers, curbside operators use online bus brokers. FMCSA has no authority to regulate these brokers.

"Motorcoach safety is on the NTSB's Most Wanted List because of the potential for high-consequence accidents like we saw in the Bronx," said Chairman Hersman. "It's time to recognize that traditional transportation services have morphed into new business models that challenge existing regulatory constructs. I want to thank Senator Schumer and Congresswoman Velázquez for their leadership on this important safety issue."

Since March 2011, the NTSB has initiated investigations into two curbside bus crashes and has been assessing safety issues in three others. These five accidents resulted in 22 fatalities and 159 injuries.

This study and its Executive Summary are available online.

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