Deadly Crashes Put Tour Bus Rules Under Scrutiny

Politicians are calling for an overhaul of how the discount bus industry is regulated after 15 people were killed in the crash of a casino bus in the Bronx, N.Y., and a crash on the New Jersey Turnpike that claimed two more lives.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Last week was a tough one for the discount bus industry. First, a casino bus hit a guardrail, toppled over and crashed in the Bronx. Fifteen people died. Then another crash on the New Jersey Turnpike took the lives of two people. Now, some politicians are calling for an overhaul of how the industry is regulated.

NPR's Robert Smith has more.

ROBERT SMITH: Transportation policy is usually influenced by dense safety statistics. But last week it became emotional. The casino bus crash featured pictures and video that just took your breath away.

HANSEN: Breaking news in the Bronx. A horrific crash involving a tour bus...

Unidentified Woman #2: What had happened, the bus turned over and slid the length of a football field.

Unidentified Man #1: Sheared the bus nearly in half.

Unidentified Woman #3: The entire top of the bus was sheared off.

Unidentified Man #2: Thirty-one passengers on board.

SMITH: Fifteen of them died. Three days after the Bronx crash, it happened again on different highway.

HANSEN: Breaking news in New Jersey. A deadly bus crash on the turnpike...

Unidentified Man #4: When it went out of control, careened down the grass...

Unidentified Woman #4: It lifted the rear end of the bus into the air and crashed landed across three lanes of traffic...

SMITH: This time, two people, including the driver, died. And the two crashes weren't related. But the non-stop coverage on New York stations led to some reasonable questions: Who exactly is driving these low fare buses and how tough are the regulations

In the case of the first bus crash in the Bronx, the investigators focus is on Ophadell Williams. He's the driver that survived the crash. All last week, news leaked out that suggested that Williams shouldn't have been behind the wheel, even if he was sober and well rested. He's been to jail twice - once for stabbing a man and once for grand larceny. He had his driving license suspended while using a different name. And the state of New York is investigating how he managed to get a commercial driving license.

PETER PANTUSA: What we saw this week in New York and New Jersey was really an anomaly and something we hope we don't see again.

SMITH: Peter Pantusa is the CEO of the American Bus Association. It's a trade group that represents some of the biggest players in the industry. He says that even as the number of discount buses have flourished, the overall safety record is good. But Pantusa accepts that the government needs to do a better job enforcing regulations.

PANTUSA: In the accident that happened in New Jersey, we saw a record of violations. And why a company that was so far off the charts was able to continue operating is the real question at the end of the day.

SMITH: Well, actually, safety advocates have an additional question. Yes, more vigorous enforcement may have helped, but Jackie Gillan from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is focusing on the bus itself. Her group has been pushing legislation for years that would require seat belts on buses.

JACKIE GILLAN: The passengers are tossed around violently. They're bouncing against the roof and this is what's causing the deaths and injuries, and it doesn't have to be this way.

SMITH: Gillan says it's unfortunate that it takes the lives of 17 people to focus new attention on the problem. There are now two federal investigations into the accidents. And New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg is calling for congressional hearings.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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