June 06, 2011

In Wake of Two Deadly Bus Crashes, Gillibrand Calls On Transportation Department to Immediately Remove Unsafe Bus Drivers Off The Road, Implement Tough Safety Guidelines

In Letter To Transportation Secretary, Gillibrand Urges DOT To Boost Safety Regulations And Quickly Take Unsafe Buses Off The Road In 2011, At Least 10 Fatal Bus Crashes Claimed More than 20 Lives

Washington, DC – After two deadly bus tour crashes in Washington and Virginia claimed six lives last week, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced that she is calling on the Department of Transportation (DOT) to immediately implement tough safety standards and accelerate efforts to get unsafe buses and fatigued drivers off the road. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Gillibrand is demanding that the DOT shorten the timeframe in which operators must comply with tough safety standards or face severe consequences.

“We can’t wait for yet another deadly bus crash to increase protections for consumers and ensure bus safety,” Senator Gillibrand said. “The Department of Transportation must immediately speed up their efforts to get unsafe drivers off the road and reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by motorcoach accidents. And Congress needs to come together to pass bipartisan legislation to prevent any more future bus trips from turning into tragedies.”

Reports show that driver fatigue is a key factor in the Sky Express bus crash in Virginia and a National Transportation Safety Board investigation revealed that the company appealed the suspension of safety violations. In 2011, there have been at least ten motorcoach crashes that resulted in more than 20 deaths.

Senator Gillibrand is fighting to pass bipartisan legislation – the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act – which is sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown and Kay Bailey Hutchinson. The bill, which passed out of committee on May 5th, would require:

  • Improved commercial driver training. Currently, no training is required by federal regulation.
  • Safety belts and stronger seating systems to ensure occupants stay in their seats in a crash.
  • Anti-ejection glazing windows to prevent passengers from being easily thrown outside the motorcoach.
  • Strong, crush-resistant roofs that can withstand rollovers.
  • Improved protection against fires by reducing flammability of the motorcoach interior, and better training for operators in the case of fire. 
  • A National Commercial Motor Vehicle Medical Registry to ensure that only medically qualified examiners conduct physical examinations of drivers and a medical certificate process to ensure that all certificates are valid and no unqualified operator is allowed to drive.
  • Strengthened motorcoach vehicle safety inspections including roadside inspections, safety audits, and state and motor carrier programs for identifying vehicle defects.
  • Electronic On-Board Recorders (EOBRs) with real-time capabilities to track precise vehicle location that cannot be tampered with by the driver.  

 The full text of the letter, co-signed by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jim Webb (D-VA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Patty Murray (D-WA), is below:

Dear Secretary LaHood:

We know you share our grief in the needless deaths of six people and the serious injuries sustained by passengers in separate motorcoach crashes in Virginia and Washington last week.  While we appreciate the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) recent enhanced enforcement efforts to ensure safety compliance, these two crashes clearly indicate more is needed.  We write today to urge that your Department accelerate efforts to promptly remove unsafe motorcoach carriers from our roads, ensure driver preparedness, and protect passenger safety.

Preliminary reports indicate that the recent Sky Express bus crash in Virginia was caused by two key factors: driver fatigue, and the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) decision to give this clearly unsafe carrier a last minute reprieve from closure despite a pattern of safety failures and a determination that the carrier’s safety record is unsatisfactory.  In light of the four fatalities and numerous injuries caused by the crash, it is apparent that the pattern of enforcement by DOT has been uneven, inconsistent and ineffective.  The FMCSA failed to enforce its statutory authority to place the carrier out of service. In that regard, as the DOT goes forward, we would like to know what steps will be taken to shorten the timeframe in which operators come into compliance with safety standards.             

As indicated in DOT’s Motorcoach Safety Action Plan, the Department has a clear understanding of the role driver fatigue plays in motorcoach crashes.  As you know, data indicates that fatigue is the root cause of 37% of all accidents investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. Since the announcement of the action plan, what fatigue-related research has been conducted?  With driver fatigue playing a role in more than one-third of crashes, has the Department considered extending the minimum off-duty period for motorcoach drivers?

In recent years, we have been working diligently to improve motorcoach safety standards for the millions of passengers who use this affordable and convenient mode of transportation in our country.  We appreciate the work DOT has undertaken to complement the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, which the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation recently passed unanimously.  However, in 2011 there have already been at least ten motorcoach crashes resulting in more than 20 fatalities and over 130 injuries—including 15 deaths in a single tragic crash earlier this year in New York.  These crashes indicate the urgency in addressing these critical safety deficiencies—improving occupant protection with currently available vehicle safety technology as well as upgrading driver and operator oversight and regulations. The failure of a driver and company to operate safely does not need to result in occupant deaths and injuries. We appreciate your concern on these issues and look forward to your response.