Lautenberg plans hearings on bus safety after fatal crashes

Posted: March 17, 2011

Many changes in bus-safety rules proposed in 2009 by the federal Department of Transportation have not been implemented, and with another deadly crash occurring Monday night, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) plans to hold hearings to find out why.

The new rules would mandate passenger seat belts, prohibit operators from using cell phones while driving, require onboard recording devices to monitor drivers, increase the crush resistance of bus roofs, and crack down on "chameleon" companies that change names to avoid sanctions for unsafe operations.

Police and transportation officials on Wednesday continued to investigate the Monday night crash on the New Jersey Turnpike of a bus bound for Philadelphia from New York's Chinatown. The driver and a passenger were killed and most of the 41 other passengers were injured when the bus, operated by Super Luxury Tours of Wilkes-Barre, struck a concrete overpass support south of Exit 9 near East Brunswick, N.J.

It was the second fatal bus wreck in three days. Early Saturday, a bus owned by another company was returning to New York's Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut when it crashed in the Bronx, killing 15.

The proliferation of cheap charter-bus services and an increase in bus-crash fatalities led the U.S. Transportation Department in November 2009 to propose sweeping changes in rules governing driver regulation, manufacturing standards, and safety equipment in an industry where about 3,900 companies operate about 34,000 buses. About 65 percent of the 750 million annual passengers are students and senior citizens, according to federal data.

The changes were designed to "address the most frequent causes of crashes and . . . fatalities and injuries," the department said in its Motor coach Safety Action Plan in 2009.

The National Transportation Safety Board identified driver-related problems such as fatigue, medical condition, and inattention as the major root causes of 56 percent of bus crashes investigated between 1998 and 2008.

One rule was instituted quickly: Texting by commercial bus and truck drivers was prohibited effective January 2010.

But other proposals, including mandatory seat belts and a limit on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices, still are working their way through the federal rule-making process, said Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Lautenberg, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on surface transportation, said he would conduct hearings into the pace of rules changes. He also wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, asking for quicker action.

The seven "priority action items" singled out by the Transportation Department for quick action in 2009 were:

Required electronic onboard recording devices to monitor drivers' duty hours and manage fatigue.

Bans on texting and limits on the use of cell phones and other handheld devices by drivers.

Mandatory installation of seat belts for passengers.

Requirements for roof-crush performance.

Requirements to improve stability and reduce rollovers in accidents.

Improved oversight of companies attempting to evade sanctions.

Implementation of "minimum-knowledge" requirements for drivers.

Only the texting ban has been implemented.

In a statement Wednesday, the Transportation Department said it was "investigating the carriers involved in both the Bronx, N.Y., and the New Jersey Turnpike crashes." It said it would "continue working to hold motor coach operators accountable to the highest safety standards."

An attorney for Super Luxury Tours, Michael Salvo, said the company operated 16 buses from Philadelphia, New York, and Wilkes-Barre.

Super Luxury drivers have been involved in four accidents in the last two years and have been ticketed six times for speeding, Transportation Department records show.

Three accidents took place last year in Pennsylvania and resulted in three injuries, records show. Details were not available.

In the fourth accident, a piece of wood fell from a truck and struck a bus windshield Dec. 26, 2009, state police said. In all instances, the bus drivers had valid licenses.

Federal safety records show the company had poor scores for unsafe driving, fatigued driving, and driver fitness. On four occasions, drivers could not understand or answer basic commands in English.

Super Luxury had an "unsafe driving" assessment worse than 99.6 percent of U.S. bus companies, according to records kept by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company's "driver fitness" rating was worse than 85.9 percent of bus companies, and its "fatigued driving" rating was worse than 55.3 percent of bus companies.

Super Luxury received a "satisfactory" rating in a 2009 compliance review, the most recent recorded on the safety administration's website.

A person who answered the phone at the company's Wilkes-Barre number identified himself as Chen Vhuo and said the company was based in Wilkes-Barre.

Jerry Lisman, a tenant in the East Market Street building in Wilkes-Barre, said there had been a sign on Super Luxury's office since around the start of the year indicating that the company would be moving into the location soon.

Nicholas Tsioles, the building owner, said Wednesday that the company had begun paying rent in December. But Tuesday was the first day he had seen anyone from the company in the office, he said.

Salvo said Super Luxury's owners were cooperating in the investigation.

"Their thoughts and prayers and concerns are with the injured passengers, their families, as well as the families of those who have lost loved ones in the accident," he said.

Salvo declined to comment about the crash, address Super Luxury's safety record, or divulge specifics about the company.

The buses in Monday's and Saturday's accidents were among scores that line up in Philadelphia's and New York's Chinatowns each day for bargain-priced trips to casinos and elsewhere.

The independently owned buses cater to Asian immigrants and often feature Chinese-language films on trips. They offer cut-rate fares: Gamblers can pay $12 round trip from New York to the Mohegan Sun and get a $60 bonus at the casino.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 856-779-3912 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from The Associated Press.

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