Bus company in Va fatal crash cited for violations

May 31, 2011 - 2:15 PM
APTOPIX Bus Accident Virginia

Rescue personnel work on a bus that overturned Tuesday, May 31, 2011, in Bowling Green, Va. The commercial tour bus went off Interstate 95 in Virginia and flipped on its roof before dawn Tuesday, killing four people and injuring many more, state police said. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

BOWLING GREEN, Va. (AP) — The company that operates the bus that overturned on a Virginia highway, killing four and injuring several others early Tuesday, has been involved in several accidents over the last two years. It also has been cited for 46 violations for drivers being fatigued, which police believe contributed to this crash.

The Sky Express bus departed Greensboro, N.C., on Monday night and was headed to Chinatown in New York City with 58 people aboard, including the driver, said state police Sgt. Thomas Molnar.

The bus had swerved off Interstate 95, hit an embankment and flipped over about 30 miles north of Richmond. The driver suffered minor injuries and is cooperating with investigators, Molnar said. Nearby hospitals say they have treated more than 25 people from the crash, some of whom were released.

Driver fatigue is being cited as part of the reason, but police were still investigating, Molnar said.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, Charlotte, N.C.-based Sky Express Inc. buses have been involved in four crashes, with one injury or fatality during the two-year period that ended May 20.

Its drivers have been cited for 17 unsafe-driving violations, including eight speeding violations, since 2009. Three of the 46 violations for fatigued driving were classified as serious.

Sky Express also was cited for 120 vehicle-maintenance violations, including one classified as serious. The National Transportation Board was investigating Tuesday's crash. The bus had no passenger seat belts, only for the driver.

David Wong, a manager in the Sky Express office in Charlotte, declined to comment. A telephone message left Tuesday for his attorney, Ruth Yang, wasn't immediately returned.

The records show the company uses 31 motor coaches and 53 drivers, as of May 20. It last underwent a compliance review on April 7.

Sky Express offers $30 bus trips between New York and 15 cities in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It also goes to Washington, D.C.

Tuesday's deaths come about two and a half months after a horrific New York City accident that focused attention on bus safety. On March 12, a speeding bus returning to Chinatown from a Connecticut casino toppled off an elevated highway and hit a utility pole, peeling off the roof. Fifteen passengers were killed and 18 injured.

The fleets of inexpensive buses plying the highways of the Northeast offer cheap fares, convenient routes and in some cases free wireless Internet. Customers are picked up daily from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Fares are cheap — $10 to $15 for a ride from Boston to New York, compared with $70 or more on Amtrak.

The industry is in the fifth year of a solid boom, thanks to a new breed of bus service that eschews terminals and thrives on low prices. But a string of fatal crashes over six months also has prompted calls for tougher regulation.

Federal authorities say nearly 2,800 spot safety checks of passenger buses across the country from March 28 through April 6 resulted in about 10 percent of the vehicles or drivers being taken off the road.

A series of proposals announced in May by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would make it easier for the government to take away bus drivers' commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws while operating a vehicle other than a bus or if they fail to pay fines.

Passenger Frances Lippette, 69, a retired New York schoolteacher who lives in Raleigh, uses Sky Express about every six weeks to visit her daughter in New York.

She went to the ticket office pick up her seat assignment for a bus that's scheduled to depart Tuesday night.

"Normally, somebody would be here to get your seat assignment," she said.

Instead, the glass booth was dark.

She pays less than half the price of a name-brand bus company for the 8-hour ride. It costs $30 each way.

Lippette said Sky Express was "no worse than Greyhound."

She has noticed drivers speaking in Chinese using a headset. But "I've never seen a driver not alert," she said.

Around the corner from where a Sky Express bus arrived in New York is an office for various bus companies. A sign in the window listed Sky Express schedules and prices. However, a woman at the desk said Sky Express was no longer located there. She handed over a card with phone numbers on it. None of the numbers worked or the mailbox was full.

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Sampson reported from Richmond. Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.