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Obama Administration cracking down on unsafe bus companies

August 5, 2011 by Steven M. Gursten

Bus accident lawyer examines the positive effect of proposed bus safety laws

The Obama Administration has stepped up efforts aimed at placing unsafe buses out of service and cracking down on unsafe bus company operators, to stop preventable bus accidents before they happen.

A great deal of my cases in Detroit involve people either on a SMART bus or injured by SMART buses, and I’ve handled bus accident injury cases in Ann Arbor (that went to the Court of Appeals on Michigan’s 60-day notice rule under MCL 124.419). I’ve also litigated bus accident cases in Grand Rapids, Lansing, and increasingly, I have seen buses coming from out of state to the casinos in Detroit. So bus safety is something I’m very aware of, both as a lawyer and as someone who has lectured on this topic to other injury lawyers.

You would be astonished if you knew how dangerous many of the buses on our roads today actually are. If a bus is considered “out of service,” it means that there are safety violations that are so dangerous, that the bus would need to be towed away for immediate repair if it were stopped by a police officer.

Unfortunately, since approximately 1 percent of buses are ever inspected, it also means that most of these unsafe buses aren’t discovered until after a bus accident has occurred. Even then, unless the lawyer is doing an inspection after a serious crash, most of these safety violations will go undiscovered. For example, unless there’s a fatality involved, or a bus accident that is so significant that the person injured looks like he may die, the City of Detroit police will almost never do a bus inspection after a bus accident. They are just too common, too routine; and the time and cost involved are too expensive for law enforcement in most communities to take a more proactive role in these types of cases today.

According to published reports, the Obama Administration has doubled the number of bus inspections and comprehensive safety reviews of the nation’s estimated 4,000 passenger bus companies. And that, for the lawyers who have watched the numbers of bus accidents rise year after year, is finally good news. Many of these bus operators are terrible, and it is time we started to proactively address this problem on our roads.

Here are the statistics:

o Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) roadside inspections of motor coaches have jumped nearly 100 percent, from 12,991 in 2005 to 25,703 in 2010.

o Compliance reviews are up 128 percent, from 457 in 2005 to 1,042 in 2010.

o The FMCSA has initiated a greater number of enforcement cases against unsafe passenger carriers under the current administration: these cases have risen from 36 in 2008 to 44 in 2010.

o In May, FMCSA and its state and local law enforcement partners conducted more than 3,000 surprise passenger carrier safety inspections over a two-week period that resulted in 442 unsafe buses or drivers being placed out of service, and therefore, removed from the roadways.

o In all, the May surprise inspections took 127 unsafe drivers and 315 unsafe vehicles off the road during these unannounced inspections.

DOT asks for stronger bus safety laws

The DOT (Department of Transportation) has asked Congress to provide FMCSA with greater authority to pursue unsafe “reincarnated” passenger carriers, by establishing a uniform federal standard to help determine whether a new carrier is a reincarnation of an old, unsafe carrier.

This is huge. Many truck and bus accidents today are caused by drivers and companies that have caused serious crashes in the past, but opened under new names in order to go undetected and without penalty.

These motor carriers are the worst, as they let nothing get in the way of making a buck. That includes hiring drivers with previous bus crashes and substance abuse problems, pushing these drivers to travel past regulated hours of service and not maintaining bus fleets, to name a few. These drivers will “grass hop” from state to state, so they are not caught and they can keep causing bus accidents and truck accidents.

This is especially prevalent in Michigan, where there are no punitive damages to deter this horrifically dangerous behavior. As I discussed last week, because Michigan has no punitives, the bus companies must only pay the insurance policy limits when they cause preventable bus accidents, even if the facts underlying the crash are egregious. They face no other civil penalties for hurting and killing people. In other words, there is no “big stick” to deter bad behavior.

And that is the other side to punitive damages – despite what the insurance company propaganda machine likes to say. The threat of punitive damages does deter and prevent bad behavior for many businesses that knowingly calculate people’s lives and safety as part of their profit and loss decisions.

The DOT has also asked Congress to approve a new procedure that would allow the FMCSA to conduct bus safety inspections at en route locations such as rest stops, and to require new motor coach companies to undergo a full safety audit before receiving operating authority.

To ensure passenger carriers operating in violation of DOT regulations are punished, the DOT has asked Congress to raise the penalty for operating illegally or without authority from $2,000 a day to $25,000 per violation.

As a lawyer focusing on bus accidents throughout Michigan, this is all great news. I’m happy that the Obama Administration is on our side for this one, since this problem was largely ignored during the Bush Administration.

Steven Gursten is a partner of Michigan Auto Law and one of the top commercial vehicle lawyers in the country. He is past president of the American Association for Justice Truck Accident Litigation Group, and he has lectured to legal groups and law enforcement about bus accidents and bus safety. Steve was named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly Leader in the Law for his work to promote national truck and bus safety.

Related information to protect yourself:

Why Detroit is jeopardizing No-Fault benefits to bus accident victims

How does a Detroit bus driver cause 20 bus accidents but have a perfect driving record?

Why bus lawyers must investigate the driver’s background and history

Michigan Auto Law exclusively handles car accident, truck accident and motorcycle accident cases throughout the entire state of Michigan. We have offices in Farmington Hills, Sterling Heights, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Detroit to better serve you. Call (248) 353-7575 for a free consultation with one of our bus accident lawyers.

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