RICHMOND, Va. – An East Coast discount bus service was near to being shut down by federal transportation authorities before a weekend crash in Virginia killed four people, but it was still operating because it received a 10-day extension to file its appeal, federal transportation authorities said Wednesday.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Sky Express Inc. was shut down this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation for violating multiple federal safety regulations and is now prohibited from offering interstate transportation. One of its buses bound for New York City swerved off Interstate 95 early Tuesday, hit an embankment and overturned about 30 miles north of Richmond.
The development renewed calls from industry experts and lawmakers who say more oversight is needed to ensure safer bus travel across the U.S.
Transportation Department officials said Wednesday they were about to shut down Sky Express but then gave it extra time to appeal an unsatisfactory safety rating.
According to a timeline released by the department indicates that without the extension Sky Express would have been shut down last Saturday.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he is directing the agency to end its practice of extending appeals periods for operators found to be unsafe.
Sky Express cannot resume operation until the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration determines the company is "fit," according to the order issued late Tuesday following the crash. And Transportation Department spokeswoman Candice Tolliver said the agency "often" issues so-called out-of-service orders, but could not immediately provide details on the process companies need to go through in order to get back on the road.
The agency's action doesn't happen enough, said Pete Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, an industry trade group whose members are among the 3,200 bus companies operating across the country.
With commercial bus lines making about 750 million passenger trips each year, there's a lack in oversight to make certain that companies are complying with federal and state regulations, Pantuso said. Federal regulations outline things like how many hours a driver could work and the amount of time between trips. Various other state regulations exist.
"The regulations are there but there's not enough consistent enforcement," he said.
Still the industry historically has had a "great safety record," with about 10 to 15 fatalities annually, Pantuso said.
"About 99.9 percent of them operate safely all the time and they're diligent about safety," he said. "It's their family, their friends, their neighbors that they're transporting. ... This company was operating well outside the margins of safety."
Sky Express, incorporated in North Carolina in 2004, 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 that 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.
According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, Sky Express 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. It also has been cited for 46 violations of drivers being fatigued over that same time, ranking it worse than 86 percent of similar companies in that category.
The driver in Tuesday's fatal crash, Kin Yiu Cheung, was charged with reckless driving and police say his fatigue was a factor. Cheung, 37, of Flushing, N.Y., was released from an area jail Tuesday night on bond and is scheduled to appear in court on Friday.
The bus departed Greensboro, N.C., on Monday night and was headed to Chinatown in New York City with 59 people aboard.
Virginia State Police on Wednesday identified those killed in the crash as Karen Blyden-Decastro, 46, of Cambria Heights, N.Y.; Sie Giok Giang, 63, of Philadelphia; Josefa Torres, 78, of Jamaica, N.Y.; and Denny Estefany Martinez, 25, of Jersey City, N.J.
About 20 people remained hospitalized Wednesday, some of which were still in intensive care, said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
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 Sky Express buses, the company said in a statement. "The bus driver has never before been involved in an accident."
Gail Parenteau, a spokeswoman for Sky Express, also said the company had suspended service on almost all of its buses as soon as it learned of the accident.
The company's drivers have been cited for 17 unsafe-driving violations, including eight for speeding, since 2009, according to a report by federal officials. 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.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, 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 Sky Express bus had no passenger seat belts; only the driver had a seat belt.
The federal Department of Transportation also 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.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.