Do Discount Buses Kick Safety to the Curb? Investigating Some of NYC’s Most Popular Bus Lines

Last March, a World Wide Tours curbside bus returning to New York City killed 14 passengers when it collided with a pole near the Bronx/Westchester border. The company has since been shut down, but a new report shows many curbside bus companies are quite unsafe compared to traditional bus carriers. AP/David Karp

So-called curbside buses are seven times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than traditional carriers, according to an Oct. 31 report by the National Transportation Safety Board. The rock-bottom prices of these buses, which pick up passengers on street corners rather than at Port Authority, make them very attractive to New Yorkers. But are they safe?

Overall, the report concluded that these cheaper modes of travel were generally safe, however, the comparatively high number of fatalities and violations are — at the very least — nerve-racking.

MetroFocus examined the safety records and business practices of three of the city’s most popular curbside bus companies, which have relatively small fleets. To see how the safety of these low-cost buses stacks up against traditional bus lines, we included Greyhound, the largest intercity bus company in North America, for comparison.

The graphic below rates the bus companies based on following criteria:

  • Unsafe driving — the number and severity of traffic-law violations including speeding, illegal turns and running red lights.
  • Vehicle maintenance — number of inspections in which vehicles were found not to be up to code.
  • Fatigued driving — federally-mandated company records showing drivers worked more hours than considered safe under federal law.
  • Driver fitness — are drivers qualified? In most cases this meant drivers could not speak English (legal federal requirement) or lacked proper medical certifications.

Some of the more popular curbside bus companies received generally worse ratings than Greyhound in the categories of unsafe driving, vehicle maintenance violations, fatigued driver violations and driver fitness violations. MetroFocus/Karen Brazell.

*Please note: In the DOT’s rating system, the higher the percentile, the more unsafe the bus company is.

MetroFocus contacted each of the bus lines we investigated for comment on their safety ratings, but the companies did not return calls and emails.

So what can be done to improve the safety of these buses? The National Transportation Safety Board‘s report recommended that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) beef up its regulatory practices. In a written statement to MetroFocus, the DOT said it has increased the number of bus inspections by more than 100 percent in the past five years and will continue to strive for higher safety standards. But the DOT has its work cut out for it due to the ease with which bus companies can manipulate their records.

Road blocks to creating safer bus companies: The DOT tracks curbside bus companies through numeric IDs, referred to as “DOT numbers.” Even Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the American Bus Association, conceded, “Many of these companies are carrying multiple DOT numbers and what they do is they will shift their assets and their material around from one DOT number to another. If they have a problem with one DOT number they just move it over to the next.”

Ronan also said that the relatively cheap cost of starting a bus company allows virtually anyone to get into the transit game. “Thisis an area where there’s a lot of growth and there are a lot of business opportunities,” Ronan said. “And it’s too easy to get into it. It only costs $300 to get a DOT number.”

So how can passengers choose the right bus? Search the DOT’s Passenger Carrier Information website for the name of the bus company you’re looking for. If the company is being entirely transparent, its corporate name will be the same or similar to the name on the side of the bus, and you will see the company’s DOT number. Then, you can enter the DOT number into the DOT database and search the company’s safety records.

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