In testimony submitted to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s subcommittee on Highways and Transit in April, the American Bus Association (ABA) said because the current federal/state partnership for motorcoach inspections was “broken” passengers are being put at risk.
Aside from also submitting a list of recommendations, including the establishment of a bus inspection program in every state that includes training for, and testing of, inspectors specifically for motorcoaches, several issues were exposed that are shared by motorcoach operators around the country, including the inconsistency of inspections from state to state — some states do inspections, others do not and some do more, while others less — and the lack of a uniform process for all federal and state officials who perform the inspections.
METRO spoke with motorcoach operators across the U.S. and found that while the issues mentioned by the ABA do exist, they may in fact be more concerned with the federal government’s use of those inspections to create scores that are viewable to the public, which include no opportunity for them to tell their side of the story.
Growing role of inspections
In the wake of several high-profile accidents, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) introduced the Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program in December 2010.
The goal of the CSA program is to allow the FMCSA to reach more carriers earlier and deploy a range of corrective interventions to address a carrier’s specific safety problems before an incident. The centerpiece of CSA is the Safety Measurement System, which analyzes all safety-based violations from inspections and crash data to determine a commercial motor carrier’s on-road performance. That information is then made available to the public as an overall score, so they can make a more informed decision before selecting an operator for their trip.
Some in the industry feel the usage of these inspections is negatively impacting CSA scores, and perhaps, missing the larger point — safety.
“In some ways, the FMCSA is really trying to make these scores the end all, be all,” says Godfrey LeBron, owner of Paradise Travel in Franklin Square, N.Y. “Depending on who is performing these inspections, one thing to keep in mind is they are revenue generators. If somebody is inclined to find something wrong, and does, that appears in your score, which is just not fair.”
Brian Scott, president of Largo, Fla.’s Escot Bus Lines explains that during one inspection, his operation was written up because the legal lettering on the coach had the correct U.S. Department of Transportation number, but was missing “LLC” in the name of the company.
“Things like that have nothing to do with safety,” he says. “So, the goal ends up becoming making sure the bus can pass an inspection and making sure the driver knows how to deal with the enforcement person through the inspection process.”
Many in the industry also consider the problems with roadside inspections to be regional. For instance, LeBron explains his operation’s coaches were inspected approximately 40 or 50 times last year, since New York is more stringent with its inspection process. Still in other states, there are no inspections, and as the ABA pointed out in April, those states have become “safe harbors” for unsafe operators wishing to escape the inspections entirely.
Sometimes, inspections are performed at weigh stations on motorcoaches that are full of passengers and on a stringent time schedule.
“We had a bus traveling 60 miles north into Kentucky to pick up students and bring to the airport. The bus had to go through a weigh station where the officer performed a Level 1 inspection which took one-and-a-half hours,” explains Jared Stancil, VP/GM of Anchor Transportation in Whites Creek, Tenn. “The inspection caused a considerable delay, along with frustration by us and panic by our customer who were afraid they might miss their flight. The group was able to make it to their flight but only because the airlines accommodated them.”
The heart of the matter
Overall, many in the industry say they have noticed an increased amount of roadside inspections over the last few years, but don’t feel like they are necessarily having the desired impact.
“There have been some instances where it seems that a roadside inspection removed a commercial vehicle from the roadway that could have been a real hazard to other motorists,” says Stancil. “However, there are a lot more operators who report that inspections are creating delays in passenger trips.”
From the FMCSA’s point of view, its focus on safety as well as the implementation of its CSA program has taken many unsafe operators who shouldn’t have been on the road, out of business — permanently (The FMCSA was asked to comment but had not as of press time). However, some argue that FMCSA is imposing rules and regulations on an entire industry, which has been historically safe, just to catch a few bad apples and is missing the larger issue — the actual operation of the vehicle.
“I and many other operators believe that enforcing traffic laws is far more effective in reducing crashes than vehicle inspections,” says Scott. “I’m not saying vehicles should not ever be inspected, but that’s where the focus is currently, when it should be on driver behaviors.”
As for the impact of roadside inspections on an operation’s CSA scores, it’s a mixed bag. At Anchor Transportation, for example, Stancil explains that state authorities park outside of his facilities and inspect buses as they return from trips, a nuisance to be sure, though he explains it has proven to be a positive for the operation’s CSA score.
“Since we have so many more inspections that have no violations, it is having a favorable impact as it has moved us to another tier,” he says.
Not everybody is a fan. LeBron explains an incident where his driver had run over a nail and the tire was losing air. A truck was on its way out to fix the flat and a motorcoach from another company was already on its way to pick up the passengers, however, the vehicle was placed out of service by the inspecting officer.
“It’s the rules, I get why the vehicle had to be placed out of service, but how does the consumer know what happened when they look up your score and see an out of service violation with no explanation?” he asks.
Scott says there are just too many things that can get a vehicle put out of service.
“Just look at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s manual and the out of service criteria and you can see how that list has just grown and grown through the years,” he explains. “Not every potential customer checks CSA, but people do, such as school districts or big tour operators. I just don’t think the CSA scores should be in the public view at all. Enforcement can use that information all they want, but there just isn’t enough information for the public to be able to interpret those scores.”
Operators do say the FMCSA’s efforts have really forced the industry to step up its game, but they still feel that placing so much importance on CSA scores is the wrong move since many customers ultimately consume based on price.
In the meantime, operators say their key defense in making sure their employees know how a roadside inspection works and what they can do to be prepared comes down to constant communication.
“At the end of the day, you are not there with them when the inspection is happening, so constant training is critical,” LeBron says. “You really have to give them all the resources they can so they understand how the vehicle, and the inspection process itself, works.”
Scott adds it’s also been important to stress how the inspection process impacts the drivers as well.
“This just isn’t a company issue. The federal government is also tracking violations on drivers and those violations follow them as long as they are in the industry,” he says. “So probably the biggest thing for us is just making them understand that they do have skin in the game as well, so they also have to step-up their game and really focus on performing their job duties, especially their pre-trip inspections.”