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Growing bus use raises safety issues

| Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 6:42 p.m.

WASHINGTON — As the number of bus passengers approaches the number of American airline passengers, transportation experts are taking a closer look at the widely disparate state efforts to make sure buses are safe.

States are responsible for enforcing federal safety laws for buses that cross state lines, but they take very different approaches. Nearly half of the states require annual inspections. The rest do not.

Some spend almost all of at least $165 million in federal inspection money to look at trucks, while others focus more heavily on buses. Others are more aggressive at conducting roadside inspections.

States have different rules for buses that do not fall under federal jurisdiction because they operate only within the state.

Industry leaders and safety advocates want more consistent enforcement among states and within states, although they differ on the tactics. Congress has asked the federal Department of Transportation to study whether more uniform state laws are needed.

The discussion over state enforcement methods occurs as federal regulatory efforts are under scrutiny. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, in particular, was under fire when 28 people died in motor coach accidents in 2011.

Since, federal regulators have stepped up inspections, tried to better identify rogue operators and started requiring seat belts on new buses.

The scrutiny occurs as industry studies show American buses provide more than 700 million passenger trips a year, compared with 720 million on airlines.

Federal regulators targeted companies last year that they deemed to pose significant risks. As part of that eight-month effort, they shut down 52 bus companies and removed 340 buses from the road.

The number of people who die in bus accidents has remained steady in recent years at about 20 a year. But when crashes occur, they can be devastating because of the number of passengers on board.

Indiana state Sen. Tom Wyss was surprised what he learned about his state's bus safety laws after a church bus crash in Indianapolis last summer left a youth pastor, his pregnant wife and a chaperone dead.

Wyss discovered bus owners in Indiana do not have to show the state that their vehicles were inspected in the past year.

He was particularly worried about buses owned by churches, Scouting groups and other nonprofits, which receive less scrutiny under federal regulations than commercial buses.

“When you get on a Greyhound or some other bus, you know that puppy has been inspected. But what about this one here? It turns out ... we don't check buses that are private buses,” he said.

So Wyss pushed a bill through the Senate requiring bus owners to show state police proof of inspection when they get their license plates renewed.

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