Sunday, March 9, 2014

Freedom, cheap buses, journalism


Yesterday's WNJ carried a story entitled Stopping 'Chameleon' Bus Lines is No Easy Task.

Notice first, the assumption inherent in the title:  somebody in authority is trying to look out for you.

Here are the first several paragraphs:  
At the end of 2011, federal regulators slapped a shutdown order on Double Happyness, a private, super-low-cost bus line running from Wilmington to New York’s Chinatown, for what they called “a management philosophy indifferent to motor carrier safety.”
But buses kept running from the station, a spartan storefront at 3 W. Fourth St., under the name New Everyday Bus Tour, a company owned by the brother of Double Happyness’ owner.
Last month, after racking up a long list of violations of its own, New Everyday’s authority, too, was revoked by the U.S. Department of Transportation after it did not provide proof of insurance. And, once again, buses are still running from in front of the station, to the same terminal in New York that both New Everyday Bus and Double Happyness used.
They are now operating under a separate company named Rockledge Bus Tour, which also has a long list of safety citations by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, including failure to make repairs. Although it is still authorized to run, the administration has ranked Rockledge in the bottom 5 percent of U.S. bus carriers for driver safety and fitness.
So what's happening here?  Are doughty, committed regulators attempting to save unwitting passengers from an unsafe experience?  Are we looking at a couple of sleazebags attempting to rip off the public?

Or is something completely different occurring, both in real life and in this story?

The answer is far more complex than that, so if you read on, prepare for a longer ride than usual . . .
First, note that the issue of bus safety in Chinatown emanates from a recent bus accident that did NOT involve New Everyday Bus, Double Happyness, or Rockledge Bus Tour:
The issue of bus safety became more prominent after a March 2011 crash of a motorcoach serving New York’s Chinatown, operated by World Wide Travel. It overturned and collided with a highway sign in the Bronx, killing 15 and injuring 18. Federal officials shut down that company, but the owner was later found to be operating the company’s old buses under a different company name.
Now let's look at what's apparently wrong with NEB/DH/R buses:  
A look at government records shows multiple connections among the various bus companies. New Everyday and Rockledge have similar license plate numbers, and both filed with the State of Delaware to do business at the same Wilmington address on July 11, 2011.
“That’s a red flag there’s legal gamesmanship at work,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.
In January 2012, a U.S. assistant attorney general asked for a court order to close down bus service at that address, noting that that Double Happyness unlawfully directed the activities of other lines, including Rockledge. A Rockledge bus in New York also was found to have Double Happyness brochures on its dashboard during that investigation two years ago.
The safety administration enacted new rules in 2012 aimed at establishing links between bus lines it has closed and new ones that take over their routes. The agency shut down 26 bus lines in 2012, including some that “reincarnated” under new names, and then another 52 lines in December. 
So there's "legal gamesmanship at work?"  Wow, considering the State of Delaware routinely misses the change when high-polluting chemical companies change their incorporation status to walk away from millions in fines and contaminated brownfields, I guess I'm thrilled to discover that we're hot on the trail of rotating bus companies.

My second response is to recognize that "legal gamesmanship" is apparently all right for mega-corporations operating in Delaware, like Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, or Bloom Energy, or Fisker Automotive, or DuPont, or even Amtrak, but not for small-time entrepreneurs.

And, frankly, that's the essence of the issue here.
 
Let's see what our infamous bus company has actually done:

New Everyday was cited for 237 violations between February 2010 and July 2013, according to a 442-page inspection report obtained through Freedom of Information Act.
During a June 2013 compliance review, New Everyday was cited with serious violations for failing to keep a record of each driver’s qualifications, failure to implement an alcohol and drug testing program, failure to make needed repairs after numerous maintenance citations, and failure to seek periodic inspections.
But the government did not shut down New Everyday Bus Tour over safety matters, despite its conditional safety rating. A DOT spokesman, Duane DeBruyne, said the line’s authority to operate had been revoked Feb. 10 for failure to show proof of insurance. If that proof could be shown, any line in that situation would be free to resume operations, he said.
An assistant at the bus station in New York, Randy Lin, said insurance had cost too much and the line had closed.
You have to be careful here, and note what the article DOES NOT SAY, as much as what it does.

First, let's consider those "serious" safety violations.  We know that none of them led to any accidents or injuries because (A) DOT did not shut down the busline; and (B) this carefully "balanced" story would have gleefully informed us of that.  In fact, we know that even seven months after this June 2013 compliance review, DOT had no intention of shutting down the line for its maintenance or driver history issues.

We also know that none of the maintenance issues were incredibly dangerous, for the two reasons mentioned above.  You can bet the farm that our intrepid reporters would have carefully parsed the 442-page report they FOIA'ed from DOT for juicy details.  Obviously, they didn't find any.

And they didn't find any with the successor company, either:
Rockledge’s safety record on the FMSCA’s website contains a lot of the same themes. During a June 2013 compliance review, Rockledge was cited with serious violations for using a driver before checking their background, as well as failing to promptly make needed repairs, and failure to submit to periodic inspections. Nevertheless, the company’s safety rating was listed as “satisfactory.”
 
We also note the absence of any record of customer complaints being discussed in this story by anybody; instead, we get this:
Riders continue to line up to ride the bus, which offers from nine to 11 round trips per day between Wilmington and New York.
Kiara Smith, a Delaware State University student who had taken a DART bus up from Dover, said she takes the bus three or four times a year, appreciating its $35 roundtrip price. Just before she boarded the bus, she said she felt safe for the most part, but “it’s just really cramped,” and wished there was a seat belt.
Valerie Cherrin of Wilmington, who boarded the bus from Wilmington on Thursday, said she wanted to see more proof the problems were dangerous before changing her travel plans.
“All I hear about is technicalities,” Cherrin said. Neither Rockledge nor New Everyday had any crashes on their FMCSA safety records.
The people riding these buses are obviously quite aware of what they're getting:  cut-rate, dead-bang cheap travel to and from NYC in rattletrap buses.

They know there are maintenance issues, and they are also almost certainly aware that the bus drivers are not rocket scientists with National Honor Society memberships on their records.

They're also people who have the right to make their own choices regarding the trade-off between expense, convenience, comfort, and safety.  I know more than a few DSU students who ride buses like this home and back to school because it's what they can afford.  They can't pony up the bucks for an Amtrak ticket, and they don't have a dependable enough car, or money to cover the gas.

They make choices.  Maybe you wouldn't make the same choices; maybe you don't like the choices they make.  Maybe you've never lived their lives, and maybe they don't like your choices, either.

I'll probably never ride a cut-rate bus to NYC, but I don't see Lun Dong Chen or his brother Lung Bin Chen as the villains of the piece.

What I do see is a society that is increasingly unwilling to allow individuals to make their own choices and take their own chances with the consequences.


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