Watching Out For The Bus
By Cindy Weightman, WBGO News
September 23, 2013
Every day hundreds of commuter buses carry riders between New York and New Jersey. In the wake of a fatal accident that claimed an eight month old baby in West New York, many frequent riders are questioning whether their cheap ride could cost them their lives.
North Jersey has plenty of methods of transportation for people who need to cross over the Hudson River into New York City including ferries, Path Trains and New Jersey Transit Trains and buses. If you’re short on time and looking for a discount, jitney buses are another option but you have to be brave. Many of the riders who frequent the mini buses operating along the Hudson and Bergen County corridors of Bergenline and Anderson Avenues can share horror stories of their experiences.
Mark from Cliffside Park says there are a few things that make him nervous as he depends on the motley band of jitney buses to carry him to his job in New York City.
“The guys without the seatbelts, the cellphones.” Mark also adds that he would prefer a driver who speaks English. “They serve a purpose, but you take a risk with these guys.”
Mark says he tries to ride New Jersey transit whenever possible but with about three jitneys passing by for every New Jersey Transit bus, sometimes it’s too hard to resist.
Gertrude from Fairview uses the jitneys to run errands around her Bergen County town. She was hobbling along on crutches when I caught up with her and asked her about her experiences on the bus.
“They should stop and let me sit down and then take off. This morning I got on one and he didn’t give me a chance to sit down before he took off,” she said.
Mark and Gertrude’s stories are not unique. I rode a few of the buses myself and made some of the same observations. My driver took a call while navigating a left turn through a busy intersection and while I was waiting to catch another bus outside the George Washington Bus Terminal in Upper Manhattan, I watched as a bus picked up a passenger in the middle of the street.
Some people may be wondering just who is regulating these buses. As far as the buses themselves, that would be the Motor Vehicle Commission according to MVC spokesperson Elise Coffey.
“Ninety percent of the time we are going to the bus yard or the bus resting place to conduct these inspections. They’re done twice an year and it’s a very thorough inspection. All of that information is taken down and transmitted to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in Washington,” she said.
But the MVC has no authority to conduct on the road stops. Those are left to local police departments. I checked in with the Chief of Police, Frank Delvecchio, in the Bergen County town of Fairview after a bus crackdown last month and he says the buses appeared to be operating safely.
“If there was anything really notable or out of place or dangerous, action would have been taken,” Delvecchio said. And to the best of his knowledge, “There was no action taken on any buses,” Delvecchio said.
While last month’s crackdown failed to turn up any serious issues with the buses, when I checked on the Safer Bus website overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, I did find that the buses had their fair share of vehicle violations. The FMCSA also tracks driver violations.
The accident that claimed a baby in West New York in late July involved a driver for Sphinx Bus. The driver was allegedly texting and speeding when he hit a pole that fell onto an eight month old baby girl in her stroller. Since then the calls for increased enforcement on this industry have become louder.
On the FMCSA’s website, the safety record of the Sphinx Bus which is operated by Galaxy Towers is readily available.
Galaxy Towers owns 16 buses and in the last 24 months, those buses were stopped 54 times and taken out of service nearly 40% of the time for both vehicle and driver violations. That’s well over the national average which the FMCSA says is around 21% for vehicle violations and less than six-percent for driver violations.
(a sphinx Bus )
I caught up with one of their drivers who rents a Sphinx Bus from the company. Odin Hassan says that he feels he and other drivers who follow the rules are being unfairly targeted in the aftermath of the incident.
“I didn’t know this guy exactly but he was a little careless,” Hassan said. “But second, we have nothing to do with this. I don’t know why people are being aggressive with us. We are the reason, we are killing people. But this is not good either.” (photo of Odin Hassan,on his bus)
Many of the fleets that I saw in operation between Jersey City, Fairview and New York City had their fair share of violations leading to their buses being taken out of service. That included the Big Taxi buses operated by 3CM Solutions which failed inspections about 40% of the time for both vehicle and driver infractions. Larger companies had a better record, closer to the national average.
Assemblyman Charles Mainor was not surprised by those figures. He sees the problem everyday outside his office window on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City.
“There’s no safety precautions. He’s allowing people to stand beyond the white line. He’s allowing people to stand beyond the doorway. “ Mainor also said described a scene where two women blocked the exit of the bus with their carriages. “And that creates a problem,” he said.
Mainor is the sponsor of legislation that calls for minibus drivers to carry commercial driver’s licenses and a five-million-dollar insurance policy.
(reporter Cindy Weigtman with Assemblyman Charles Mainor, outside his district office)
“I just feel the regulations should be set forth and there should be things in that bus that’s going to give the power back to the people that’s paying to ride these buses. There’s no sign on there saying if this driver is driving recklessly to call this number. We have no bill of rights for the customers. We have no safety restraints. And a lot of those buses have $100,000 worth of insurance.”
Mainor explains that if all 30 of those people are hurt, they would be forced to share that one-hundred-thousand-dollar pot of insurance.
According to Elise Coffey at the MVC, this legislation may not be needed.
“All commercial bus drivers are required to have a commercial driver’s license. Some of these so-called jitneys, they choose to operate differently, but I can assure you that commercial driver’s licenses which is something that the MVC does administer; the requirements to get one are much stricter and more stringent than a regular driver’s license.” And she says the license is reviewed constantly.
And this is something that the driver I spoke with from Spinx Bus also confirmed.
“Yeah of course, I’ve been to school. I have CDL. Every driver for the buses has to have the CDL,” Hassan said. And he says that’s true of every company. “Everybody that drives a passenger has insurance; he has good insurance. Everything must be ok,” he said.
As far as insurance is concerned, five million is the required minimum amount of insurance for commuter buses and each of the companies that I investigated are in fact carrying it according to the Safer Bus Site.
The rules are one thing, but enforcement is another, and a lot of times that falls to local police departments like Fairview’s. But Chief Frank Delvecchio says that is just one of the department’s many responsibilities.
“On a local level, we don’t actually perform the same type of inspections that the DOT can perform. Our traffic details are more focused on all vehicular traffic whether it’s a bus or a motor vehicle, so we just look for standard violations. When we’re looking at a bus, we just want to ensure the safety of the passengers on the bus.”
In the meantime, riders like Irvin from the Bronx will just have to buckle up for the ride.
“They’re always fighting for eachother. You know, they’re trying to cut eachother off and get customers and whatever. And I think that’s dangerous too. And I know you’ve gotta make money but you always have to wrorry about safety. Especially when the lives of others is in your hands, Irvin said.
Investigative reporting on WBGO is made possible by a grant from the Schumann Fund.