Days after a Charlotte bus company was shut down for a crash in Virginia that killed four passengers, federal investigators found bus company employees painting its buses.
Then they learned that the company was selling tickets over the Internet under two different names.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) moved immediately to stop Sky Express from operating. It was an example of a safety problem that is getting increased attention: "reincarnated" or "chameleon" bus companies — interstate operators who are shut down by safety regulators and secretly reopen under new names, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Nearly 10% of shuttered operators are reincarnated, government figures show. Seventeen people died in the crash of a reincarnated bus in Texas in 2008. The drumbeat for stiffer penalties, including criminal charges, has been growing since the Sky Express crash May 31.
A company lawyer did not return calls for comment.
The House transportation committee holds a hearing today to focus on "'rogue' bus operators who intentionally attempt to circumvent motorcoach safety regulations and continue to operate," according to a committee statement.
Jackie Gillan of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety says the penalties for such behavior need to be tougher than the shutdowns and fines in place now.
"Obviously, they don't see the federal government as a threat," says Gillan, who wants chameleon companies to be subject to criminal penalties.
Reopening after a shutdown order with the same drivers and equipment, and a management team with new names at the top, is usually a try at erasing a bad safety record without making costly fixes, says Stephen Keppler of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which represents state motor vehicle safety agencies.
"They're putting at risk a number of people and disrespecting public safety, and they need to be held accountable for those actions," Keppler says.
A pending bus-safety bill, co-written by Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, would require more information from interstate license applicants to show any relationships to other bus companies.
"These chameleon carriers are fly-by-night operators that drive under the radar screen and cut corners on safety," Brown says. "When they're shut down, they change their names, paint their buses and go back to their operations. It's easier for them to do that than to operate properly."
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