Cheap Buses Are Deadly

We all know that Chinatown buses are a bit of a risky business, particularly after several recent crashes have resulted in a number of deaths. But now a new study from the National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that fact, having found that these curbside operators are seven times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than their fellow interstate bus companies that operate out of traditional bus terminals.

Here, a quick look at the highlights from the report:

  • In 2010, passengers traveled 2.4 billion miles between Boston and Washington, D.C., in buses, run by both curbside and conventional carriers.
  • Despite that, no formal definition of “curbside carriers” exists, and federal and state oversight authorities have no unique categorization and tracking mechanism for these carriers.
  • There are 4,172 active interstate motorcoach carriers operating in the United States, 71 of which provide curbside service.
  • The fatal accident rate for curbside carriers from January 2005 to March 2011 was seven times that of conventional bus operations: 1.4 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles for curbside carriers compared with 0.2 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles for conventional scheduled carriers.

  • Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety say that there have been 23 interstate bus accidents this year, resulting in 33 deaths and 452 injuries.
  • Curbside carriers have higher driver fitness violation rates and out-of-service rates, and they are overrepresented in driver logbook violations.
  • The NTSB evaluated driver fitness violations from April 2009 to March 2011 and found that, for curbside carriers, 11 percent of the driver fitness violations were due to English language deficiencies.
  • The Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which keeps tabs on bus safety, is waaaay overburdened; 878 FMCSA and state personnel are responsible for compliance reviews for more than 765,000 U.S. motor carriers, a ratio of 1.15 investigators per 1,000 motor carriers. An in-depth review of a company can take up to two weeks.
  • Companies who’ve been shut down for violations often “reincarnate” as new carriers, often by changing the ownership’s name and painting over the logo and DOT ID number. They’re also referred to as “ghost buses.” Which, after reading all these stats, seem even spookier.

Fortunately, the fact that this report has come out at all means that the NTSB is working to fix these problems, though exactly how long that will take is hard to say. In the meantime, here’s there handy checklist that you can use to make sure that your next $5 curbside bus trip doesn’t end in disaster. Feeling better already, right?

Update: My colleague and frequent curbside rider Anne Vickman dug up the online safety records for each bus company. Now you can compare directly.