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Deadly bus crashes highlight safety issues

Two deadly crashes over the holiday weekend underscore safety concerns about the nation’s charter and commercial buses. 

Early Tuesday morning, a commercial tour bus carrying 58 passengers from Greensboro, N.C. to New York City overturned on Interstate 95 in central Virginia, killing four people and injuring dozens. Investigators believe the accident may have been caused by driver fatigue.

On Saturday, two people were killed and 21 were injured when a charter bus traveling from Seattle to eastern Washington rolled over on Interstate 90. That wreck, according to local news reports, happened when the bus tried to avoid a vehicle parked on the side of the road.

Both accidents come on the heels of an announcement by the Department of Transportation that nearly 15 percent of recent surprise safety inspections of passenger buses resulted in the removal of a driver or a bus from the roadways.

The 3,000 inspections were conducted between May 1 and 15 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and its state and local law enforcement partners. “Out-of-service” citations were given to 127 drivers for lacking a valid commercial driver's license and drug and alcohol violations, among other infractions. The agency also pulled 315 vehicles off the road after deeming them unsafe.

Ensuring passenger safety has taken on greater urgency since 15 people died when a bus returning from a Connecticut casino toppled off an elevated highway and hit a utility pole on March 12. 

There are an estimated 4,000 licensed passenger bus companies in the United States. Over the past five years, the FMCSA has doubled the number of unannounced bus safety inspections and comprehensive safety reviews it completes.

In early May, the DOT announced new bus safety measures, including more rigorous testing standards for commercial driver’s licenses and a rule that bans commercial drivers from texting while at the wheel. The agency has also banned commercial drivers from texting and is proposing a new rule requiring buses to provide seat belts for passengers.

The DOT’s new consumer safety checklist advises passengers to check a bus company's safety record, safety rating and operating authority before buying a ticket or hiring a bus company for group travel. It is available here(PDF).

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