Passengers line up board a Megabus in New York. The bus line announced it will give away 200,000 tickets for travel in early 2013. / Seth Wenig, AP
LOS ANGELES (AP) - A national crackdown on unsafe commercial bus companies may be having an effect.
Serious mechanical problems kept 7 percent of motor coaches or other large passenger vehicles off the road during an annual blitz of roadside safety checks, according to data released Wednesday.
But that rate was the lowest in more than a decade of the "Roadcheck" program, which this year saw 73,000 inspections of trucks and big buses over three days in June across the U.S. and Canada.
Motor coaches are generally safe, though accidents increased in recent years to about three per day. Meanwhile, major wrecks in New York, California and elsewhere killed up to 15 people each.
As a result, federal regulators have been shutting down companies they believe are dangerous, particularly low-cost lines that may cut corners to keep tickets cheap. Last year, the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration closed 26 "curbside" operators in the East for safety violations in the largest sting of its kind. The agency is finishing up another enforcement sweep now.
Inspectors made motor coaches a focus of Roadcheck 2013, which is coordinated by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a group representing both government inspectors and the truck and passenger vehicle industries.
During the sweep, inspectors deemed 7 percent of large passenger vehicles not road worthy. It's not clear how many of those involved "curbside" operators.
During the past three years, the "out of service" rates for large passenger vehicles were at or just below 9 percent, and higher in the years before that. The last time the rate was as low as 7 percent was 1998.
The results suggest "a major heightened awareness in the motor coach industry" over safety, said Steve Keppler, executive director of the safety alliance. But he cautioned that unscrupulous operators could figure out ways around the annual safety check, which is announced in advance. Surprise inspections of high-risk carriers can still see 30 percent of motor coaches kept out of service, Keppler said.
The largest operators in the motor coach industry - which carries more than 700 million passengers a year in the U.S., about as many as domestic airlines - have said they welcome the attention, particularly when directed at low-budget operators, which can pose a competitive risk to more established companies.
"It's a small subset of carriers that are causing most of the problems," said Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the American Bus Association.
Motor coach inspections are harder to do because, unlike with trucks, federal law prohibits checks during travel unless there is an obvious hazard.
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