WASHINGTON — As the number of bus passengers approaches the number of U.S. airline passengers, transportation experts are taking a closer look at the widely disparate state efforts to make sure buses are safe.
States are responsible for enforcing federal safety laws for buses that cross state lines, but they take very different approaches. Nearly half the states require annual inspections; the rest do not. Some spend almost all of at least $165 million in federal inspection money to look at trucks, while others focus more heavily on buses. Others are more aggressive at conducting roadside inspections.
States also have different rules for buses that do not fall under federal jurisdiction, because they operate only within the state.
Industry leaders and safety advocates want more consistent enforcement among states and within states, although they differ on the tactics. Congress has also asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to study whether more uniform state laws are needed.
“We want to make sure everybody who is in the business is performing at the same level,” said Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, which represents about 1,000 bus companies.
The discussion over state enforcement methods comes as federal regulatory efforts are under scrutiny. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, in particular, came under fire after 28 people died in motor coach accidents in 2011.
Since then, federal regulators have stepped up inspections, tried to better identify rogue operators and started requiring seat belts on new buses.
The scrutiny comes as industry studies show American buses provide more than 700 million passenger trips a year, compared to 720 million on airlines. There are about 4,000 bus companies providing interstate service, according to federal regulators.
Federal regulators targeted companies last year that they deemed to pose significant risks. As part of that eight-month effort, they shut down 52 bus companies and removed 340 buses from the road.
The number of people who die in bus accidents has remained steady in recent years at around 20 a year. But when crashes do occur, they can be devastating, because of the number of passengers on board.
Indiana state Sen. Tom Wyss was surprised what he learned about his state’s bus safety laws after a church bus crash in Indianapolis last summer left a youth pastor, his pregnant wife and a chaperone dead.
The Republican senator, who chairs his chamber’s transportation committee, started looking into the state’s inspection requirements, because the driver initially blamed faulty brakes for the accident. Investigators later found no mechanical problems with the bus, and determined that high speed was a cause of the accident.
Wyss discovered bus owners in Indiana do not have to show the state that their vehicles were inspected in the last year.
He was particularly worried about buses owned by churches, scouting groups and other nonprofit organizations, which face less scrutiny under federal regulations than commercial buses.
“When you get on a Greyhound or some other bus, you know that puppy has been inspected. But what about this one here? It turns out … we don’t check buses that are private buses,” he said.
So Wyss pushed a bill through the Senate requiring bus owners to show state police proof of inspection when they get their license plates renewed. The bill passed the Senate 33-14 and is now in the Indiana House.
“The state has a responsibility, if we’re going to license (buses), to make sure they are as safe as can be,” Wyss said.
If the bill passes, about 2,100 private buses would need annual inspections, legislative analysts estimate. Wyss’ bill would allow buses to be evaluated by private inspectors, although the Indiana State Police could set up its own program. The state police already inspect school buses, and did 16,000 of those inspections last year.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia required commercial vehicles to undergo state-approved annual inspections in 2012, according to J.J. Keller and Associates, Inc., a private company that consults with businesses on regulation compliance. Bus owners in other states must still have their vehicles inspected for federal purposes, but do not have to report results to the state.
Besides applying only to buses that cross state lines, federal rules are also less strict for the owners of private buses — like a musician’s tour bus or a church bus — when it comes to keeping records of annual inspections.
Nearly two years ago, Congress told the U.S. Department of Transportation to study whether to require states to put in place mandatory inspection laws. The provision was part of the larger highway bill Congress passed in 2012. It set a deadline for the report to be issued by next year.
Pantuso, the bus association’s president, said a uniform standard would be fairer, because it would discourage unscrupulous companies from registering in states with low standards to avoid scrutiny.
Will Schaefer, director of vehicle programs at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Association, a group of agencies that inspect trucks and buses, said federal officials should also standardize the criteria for evaluating whether a truck or bus passes inspection.
“Unfortunately, the way the federal regulations have evolved, we don’t have a very specific guideline of what needs to be accomplished during that inspection,” he said.
FATAL BUS CRASHES
Recent accidents have brought more scrutiny to the regulation of buses, owners and drivers.
Indiana: Three people died and 33 people were injured in July when a church bus returning from Michigan hit a barrier on an exit ramp and flipped over. The bus driver was later cited for running a red light. Investigators also said the bus was going too fast for the turn.
Oregon: Nine people died and 38 people were injured in December 2012, when a tour bus slid down an icy hill. U.S. and Canadian regulators suspended the company’s license. Victims filed a lawsuit that, among other things, accused the Oregon Department of Transportation of not installing strong enough barriers along the stretch of highway known as “Deadman’s Pass.”
California: Eight people died when a charter bus with brakes that were all defective crashed on its way back to Mexico in February 2013. The bus involved in the accident was not presented to regulators during the carrier’s annual inspection. In December, four buses crashed in a week in southern California, killing two people and injuring dozens more.
Tennessee: Eight people died and 14 were injured in October, when a church bus crossed a median on Interstate 40 near Newport, Tenn. The bus, which was carrying senior citizens home to North Carolina from a jubilee, blew a tire before hitting an SUV and a tractor trailer in oncoming traffic.