Cover Story: NTSB Investigation - Curbside Buses

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - They are cheap alternatives for travelers but a new report shows passengers who use this type of curbside bus service could end up paying with their lives.

Four people were killed and more than 50 injured when a Charlotte-based SkyExpress bus crashed on its way to New York City five months ago.

Because of this crash and others like it, the National Transportation Safety Board says just getting on these types of buses increases your chance of being killed in a wreck.

It is an issue that should concern all of us.

You might not ride on one of these buses but your car will travel on the same roads as these buses do and any one of us could be involved.  Motorcoach safety is now on the NTSB's most wanted list.

It was a crash five-months ago Monday in central Virginia on I-95 involving a SkyExpress bus based in Charlotte that killed four people and injured 54, and one 2 and a half months earlier that left 15 dead and 18 injured that prompted the NTSB investigation.

The independent safety organization of the government found so-called "curbside buses" have a fatal accident rate seven times higher than other types of interstate bus operators.  And that some of the companies will use a variety of schemes to avoid inspections and throw safety investigators off.

At SkyExpress' office on Independence Boulevard in east Charlotte the name is off the side of the bus but it appears somebody's home.

When we were there Monday afternoon a water hose was hooked up, inside a waiting room.. a LED-sign was on, and now the street sign says "General Bus Inc. to New York" along with Chinese lettering.

Curbside buses sprang up in the 1990s as an inexpensive way for low-income Chinese workers to travel between New York and Boston.

The number of companies and routes has expanded rapidly in recent years.

Fares are typically under 30-bucks.

"Here's another one.. buses to Mexico and Central America."

Passengers like them, says Angeles Ortega a leader in the Latino community, because they're inexpensive and where they pick up.

"The buses that target the Hispanic community stop at locations where the community is comfortable is familiar with such as grocery stores and churches and things like that," says Ortega.

The government shut down SkyExpress, the company website is down now.

But the NTSB report found cases of "reincarnated" carriers - companies the government shut down only to reopen under a different name.

Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety has been pushing for legislation in Congress calling for more oversight of the motorcoach industry including curbside buses.

While it doesn't advocate taking them off the road, the group says better enforcement is needed.

"It's the ones that are fly-by-night and under-funded and are living from one day to the next that aren't very capitalized that don't care about safety.. those are the companies we have to crack down on," says Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Safety advocates are counting on Monday's NTSB report to give them a boost in Congress for tougher enforcement of motorcoach buses.

They're calling for improvements in the way buses are built, seat belts on board, and more safety inspectors and inspections.

Inspectors can't stop buses enroute.

Big trucks can be pulled over for inspections, but motorcoaches can't.  The industry got the law changed in 2005 so they couldn't be stopped while enroute.

Safety advocates say that's hurt them in inspecting curbside buses.

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