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Lawrence J. Hanley

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Asleep at the Wheel

Posted: 11/09/11 12:20 PM ET

Last week's National Transportation Safety Board report commissioned by Senator Schumer and Rep. Velazquez was a much-needed look at the ugly underbelly of the intercity bus industry. It was the latest in a string of wake-up calls. As we all know, the headlines have been coming in for months -- lives lost in the Bronx, in Virginia, in Upstate New York as these deathtraps on wheels careen off the road.

As someone who has spent his entire career working with bus drivers and operators, these crashes are absolutely devastating -- but they are not unexpected. They are the direct result of an unregulated discount bus industry that has operated below the law for years and encourages its drivers to work on little to no sleep.

Among the key findings in yesterday's report the NTSB identified "driver fatigue as a contributing factor to fatal motorcoach accidents and has identified driver fatigue as an issue on its Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements." The report says the growing curbside bus industry has created challenges for enforcement authorities and stronger oversight is needed.

This observation is on the mark -- but it goes deeper than that. Driver fatigue isn't limited only to shoddy, curbside operations. Unregulated, it has spread like a disease throughout hundreds of intercity bus companies that get away with paying their drivers criminally low wages, forcing them to work around the clock to make ends meet.

According to the ATU report Sudden Death Overtime, which highlights the issue of intercity bus accidents, the NTSB estimates that 36 percent of motorcoach crash fatalities over the past decade have been due to driver fatigue. It is the number one cause of fatal accidents, far above road conditions (two percent) or inattention (six percent).

Sen. Schumer and Rep Velazquez's leadership so far on this issue has been admirable. But we need to take it a step further. We need to ensure driver fatigue is addressed in any and all bus reform proposals being considered by Congress. Focused on seatbelts, vehicle structural integrity, and keeping unsafe bus owners out of business, the Motor Coach Enhanced Safety Act of 2011 is well-intentioned legislation, but it so far does nothing to combat drivers who get behind the wheel on little or no sleep.

Seatbelts, stronger buses, and better safety technology are all critically important. However, if the driver of a 40,000-pound vehicle traveling at highway speeds falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into a bridge or flips into a ditch, the lives of passengers are going to be in grave danger, even if they are strapped in and the vehicle has the strength of a tank.

Intercity bus companies typically pay their drivers abysmally low wages and force them to work more than 100 hours a week. Even when drivers do get eight hours off, they are often forced to try and sleep in company-provided quarters that are inadequate, unsanitary and over-crowded. To make matters worse, these bus drivers don't get overtime pay for work exceeding 40 hours per week as 85 percent of Americans do under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Why do bus operators get away with that? Because intercity bus operations are exempt from overtime rules under the FLSA due to an outdated loophole.

Congress and the Administration need to realize they have created a framework for the bus industry to operate sweatshops on wheels. They can begin to clean up the intercity bus industry by lifting the FLSA overtime pay exemption on intercity bus drivers so they are fairly compensated for work exceeding 40 hours per week, making them less inclined to work second jobs while pushing their bodies beyond safe limits.

Extending these protections to intercity bus drivers is not only the right thing to do; it's the safe thing to do for our drivers and passengers alike. No more bus tragedies on the road. Safety starts with protection under the law.