Feds Shut Down SkyExpress Buses after Fatal Crash in Virginia

June 1, 2011 - 7:59 AM

BOWLING GREEN, Va. (AP) - Federal regulators have shut down East Coast discount bus service SkyExpress after a crash in Virginia that killed four people and sent more than 50 others to hospitals.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an unsatisfactory safety rating and prohibited Charlotte, N.C.-based SkyExpress from operating interstate transportation. It said in a statement Tuesday the bus company violated multiple federal safety regulations.

A SkyExpress bus headed to New York City swerved off northbound Interstate 95 early Tuesday, hit an embankment and overturned about 30 miles north of Richmond.

The driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, was charged with reckless driving and police say his fatigue was a factor in the crash. Federal documents show the company has a particularly poor safety record.

A spokeswoman for SkyExpress did not immediately respond to messages for comment about the so-called our-of-service order issued by the Transportation Department's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A spokeswoman for the Transportation Department also did not immediately return calls for more details on how long the ban would be in effect.

Over the last two years, the company has been involved in several accidents, according to federal records. It also has been cited for 46 violations of drivers being fatigued over that same time.

SkyExpress 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.

The carrier is part of an industry of inexpensive buses on the highways of the East Coast offer cheap fares, convenient routes and in some cases free wireless Internet. The industry is in the fifth year of a boom, but a string of fatal accidents also has prompted calls for tougher federal regulation.

The bus departed Greensboro, N.C., on Monday night and was headed to Chinatown in New York City with 59 people aboard. Cheung, 37, of Flushing, N.Y., was being held in an area jail on $3,000 bond and the National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, SkyExpress Inc. buses have been involved in four crashes, with an injury or fatality -- it didn't specify which -- during the two-year period that ended May 20.

The company offered its condolences to the families of the four women killed and said it would cooperate fully in the investigation.

"This is the first serious accident" involving SkyExpress buses, the company said in a statement released through its media liaison, Gail Parenteau. "The bus driver has never before been involved in an accident."

The company's drivers have been cited for 17 unsafe-driving violations, including eight for speeding, since 2009, according to a report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It received a 62.9 percent rating, meaning it performed worse than nearly 63 percent of comparable transportation companies.

Other recent crashes, including one involving another company in March that killed 15 people returning to Chinatown from a Connecticut casino, demonstrate that the bus industry won't take essential steps to protect passengers' safety unless required by the government, the Senate sponsor of a bipartisan bus safety bill said.

"How many deaths do we have to have before the bus companies are going to start saying, `Maybe we don't need more time. Maybe we should start doing something about this' with or without the government telling them to," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said. "Sometimes they need government mandates."

Brown and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have been trying for three years to pass a bus safety bill that would require better training for drivers, seat belts and stronger bus roofs that aren't easily crushed or sheared off to prevent passengers from being ejected in a rollover and to ensure they have enough space inside to survive. The SkyExpress bus had no passenger seat belts; only the driver had a seat belt.

The bill was poised for Senate passage last year until Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., placed a hold on it. With Congress closing in on adjournment, and other pressing legislation waiting to be voted on, the bill died. A Coburn spokesman said previously that the bill was costly and unnecessary.

A nearly identical bill was reintroduced earlier this year. Still unclear is whether Coburn -- a physician sometimes referred to by Senate colleagues as "Dr. No" for his frequent holds on bills -- will try to block the measure again. Brown said Coburn told him several weeks ago he was still undecided.

The bus industry says the problem is limited to a small number of rogue operators and what's needed is tougher government enforcement of existing safety regulations.

"I question how a company like this is allowed to operate," American Bus Association president Pete Pantuso said.

SkyExpress' 46 violations for fatigued driving ranked worse than 86 percent of similar companies in that category.

The federal Department of Transportation has proposed requiring buses to have electronic on-board recorders to replace easily falsified paper records of driver hours. The proposals also would make it easier to revoke drivers' commercial licenses following violations.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said SkyExpress's federal safety report is rife with warning signs. It raises questions about tired drivers and driver fitness in particular, said the advocate group's general counsel, Henry Jasny.

In the area of driver fitness, federal records show that SkyExpress has been cited for 24 violations since 2009, including 14 for using drivers who lack English-language skills. Its 99.7 percent rating ranks the company among the worst in that category.

"To drive any commercial vehicle in the United States, you have to have English proficiency," Jasny said. "You don't have to be fluent but you need to be able to communicate with passengers and law enforcement and understand signs on the highway."

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Sampson reported from Richmond. Associated Press writers Steve Szkotak in Richmond, Verena Dobnik in New York and Joan Lowry in Washington contributed to this report.