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The difficult problem of enforcing bus safety laws nationwide

It was less than six months ago that a bus accident in Tennessee killed eight people and injured an additional 14. The group of senior citizens aboard the bus was a church group on its way home to North Carolina from a religious gathering when the accident occurred on Interstate 40 near Newport. The crash is believed to have been caused by a blown tire that led the bus to swerve into oncoming traffic.

Devastating accidents like the one last October are a sobering reminder that bus travel in the United States remains dangerous and can be deadly. Even as bus travel has become almost as popular as flying, safety advocates say that state and federal regulations for buses tend to be inconsistent and difficult to enforce.

Domestic airlines provide about 720 million passenger trips per year. America’s estimated 4,000 interstate bus companies now provide over 700 million passenger trips per year. But unlike airplane travel – in which crashes are rare and crash-related deaths even more so – an average of about 20 people die per year in bus accidents on U.S. roads.

Bus regulation at the federal level is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. But the FMCSA counts on states to help enforce federal laws for buses that cross state lines. Unfortunately, states can have vastly different enforcement approaches, making accountability a lot more difficult.

Annual bus inspections are required by only about half of states. Additionally, privately owned buses (like those used by church and community groups) often face less strict regulation than commercial passenger buses.

Some safety advocates believe that random bus inspections en route would be the best way to ensure that buses are in good shape and their drivers are fit for service. But due to a 2005 federal law, buses cannot be pulled over solely to be inspected if passengers are aboard.

There may be no easy or quick solution to this nationwide problem of bus safety regulation. But Tennesseans do have a choice in how they travel. If you’re planning to travel on a commercial bus in the near future, ticket price alone may not be a good way to choose your carrier. Instead, you may wish to limit your options to well-known companies with a reputation for safety and reliability.

Source: PEW Stateline, “More Buses Bring More Scrutiny From State Regulators,” Daniel C. Vock, Feb. 14, 2014

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