WASHINGTON -- It would be harder for tour bus companies to win permission to operate and easier for the government to put rogue operators out of business under a series of bus safety steps announced Thursday by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Other proposals announced by LaHood would make it easier for the government to take away bus drivers' commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws while operating a vehicle other than a bus or if they fail to pay fines.
Attention to bus safety by Transportation Department officials and members of Congress has been heightened since the March 12 crash of a bus returning to New York City's Chinatown after an overnight excursion to a Connecticut casino. Fifteen people were killed when the bus - which safety investigators say was traveling at its maximum possible speed of 78 mph - toppled off an elevated highway and struck a utility pole, peeling off its roof.
A passenger has said the driver fell asleep; the driver has said he was alert and well-rested. The accident is being investigated by the New York state police, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board.
The new proposals would require bus companies to pass a safety audit before receiving federal permission to operate. The audit would include an interview with the company's owners and a safety examination of the company's drivers and vehicles.
Tour buses transport over 700 million passengers a year - nearly as many as U.S. airlines - but current regulations allow them to go into business and operate for as long as 18 months without a safety evaluation, said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
"The public would be aghast if they thought that startup airlines could start carrying passengers without some basic oversight by the government," Gillan said.
Penalties for operating buses without federal permission would increase from $2,000 a day to as much as $25,000.
The department also would have greater authority to pursue enforcement action against unsafe "reincarnated" or "chameleon" companies, which are operations that go out of business in one location after being cited for safety violations and reopen in another location under a new name.
The department also said it has made final previous proposals to tighten requirements for issuing a commercial driver's license. Drivers now will have to first obtain a special learner's permit before they can obtain a license. State licensing agencies will also be required to use a testing system that meets national standards.
And the use of foreign language interpreters during testing will be prohibited to reduce the potential for fraud, the department said.
"This is really welcome new," Gillian said. "All these actions by the Transportation Department will help keep unsafe (bus companies) and unsafe drivers off the road."
But what's missing from LaHood's list of safety measures is "the other half of the equation" - requirements that buses be equipped with seat belts and have reinforced roofs and windows to prevent passengers from being ejected in rollover accidents, Gillan said. If buses had to meet those requirements, many now-fatal accidents would be survivable, she said.
Last year, the department proposed requiring seat belts on new buses. The proposal, which doesn't apply to buses already on the road, has not yet been made final.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently completed research on bus emergency exits and testing and performance standards for stronger roofs that don't crush in rollovers. A decision on new regulations in those areas is expected later this year.
A bill that would require the Transportation Department to act on those issues was approved without opposition Thursday by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
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