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Marian Wang, Special to The Skanner News from Propublica
Published: 03 June 2011

Wednesday we noted that just days before Tuesday's fatal bus crash in Virginia, federal bus regulators made the decision to put off shutting down the troubled Sky Express bus company, giving it extra time to stay on the roads.

Now that four people have died this week in a Sky Express bus, the Department of Transportation has had some harsh words for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency that regulates commercial buses and trucks. FMCSA is a division within the Transportation Department.

"I'm extremely disappointed that this carrier was allowed to continue operating unsafely when it should have been placed out of service," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The Department of Transportation gave such extensions to eight bus companies that faced closure this year, USA Today reported. A department spokeswoman previously told the paper that it extended its investigation "to make sure we had an air-tight case to shut the company down completely."

The American Bus Association, a trade group that doesn't count Sky Express as a member, has publicly criticized the company as having a particularly egregious safety record and has blamed the government for failing to protect the public. The group has said that what's needed isn't new regulation—it's enforcement of existing ones. 

As a recent report by WNYC noted, the industry group opposed an effort in 2009 that would have mandated safety upgrades to buses, such as seat belts, stronger windows, and fire suppression equipment. The group said the new requirements would cost too much, and the bill never passed.

(As a side note, this WNYC interview with New York Times transportation reporter Michael Grynbaum is also worth a listen. According to Grynbaum, the Transportation Department's own studies have found no real safety difference between the discount, curbside bus lines and established bus lines.)

After a rash of high-profile accidents in March, regulators have been working on new safety rules, which have been met with mixed industry reaction. The trucking industry, for instance, is challenging a rule set last month that would raise testing standards for commercial drivers' licenses. But as for a separate proposal requiring new bus companies to undergo comprehensive safety audits before being allowed to operate—that's a measure that the American Bus Association, which represents existing carriers, said it supported.


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