Inspectors need authority to randomly pull over tour buses on the highway if they are to catch rogue carriers using a variety of schemes to evade even the most basic safety rules, federal and state officials said Monday.
Anne Ferro, who heads the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, told a House panel that her agency, working with state police, is forbidden from making such checks now. Police can pull over buses only if they see something to indicate a possible safety violation like an expired inspection sticker.
Concern about tour bus safety has spiked since March, when a bus returning passengers to New York's Chinatown after a night of gambling ran off a highway and struck a utility pole. The collision, the first of a string of high-profile crashes, sheared off the bus roof, killed 15 passengers and injured 18 others.
Of special concern are small bus companies known as reincarnated or chameleon carriers who continue to operate under new names or in new locations after being shut down for safety violations.
Ferro's call for random inspections was supported by David Palmer, an official with the Texas Department of Public Safety who testified on behalf of a coalition of government safety enforcement officials in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
The bus companies with the most severe safety problems tend to be what's known as "curbside operators" who don't have a fixed place of business or bus terminal, Palmer said. The most effective way to inspect them is through random roadside checks, he said.
One reason it's hard for inspectors to catch up with such companies is they frequently change the locations where they pick up and drop off passengers — a parking lot one day, a street corner the next.
In Houston, where Palmer works, sometimes the only way safety officials can find rogue bus companies is to go to a neighborhood and look for flyers advertising where passengers will be picked up and dropped off, he told a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In place of roadside inspections, federal officials working with state police have been going to destinations popular with tour bus passengers to conduct surprise inspections. But the effectiveness is limited.
"Once the first group of buses gets to the location, then the surprise is gone," Palmer said.
Bus industry officials and several lawmakers said they were concerned that roadside inspections may put passengers at risk.
"The last thing I want to see on an interstate highway is a bus inspection and passengers unloaded," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the committee.
Buses can be moved to locations off the highway if it appears there are serious violations, officials told the committee.
Lawmakers were also leery of Ferro's request for $50 million more in next year's budget to hire more bus inspectors.
"It's specific for boots on the ground," Ferro said. "Getting to high risk carriers enough, that's always a resource issue."
Federal officials rely on state enforcement agencies for help, but industry officials said only about a dozen states have aggressive bus inspection programs. It hasn't been a priority for many states or they've shifted money and manpower to truck safety enforcement.
"We see a lot of places that just don't put enough emphasis on bus inspections," said Pete Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association.