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Asleep at the Wheel: How Deregulation of the Bus Industry Could Get You Killed

Bus accidents kill about 50 and injure almost 1,000 other innocent passengers every year—and the biggest reason is driver fatigue.

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 This piece was originally published by Labor Notes. Come to the Labor Notes conference May 4-6 in Chicago, the biggest gathering of grassroots labor activists and all-around troublemakers out there! More than 100 workshops and meetings to ‘put the movement back in the labor movement.’  

Fifteen people were killed in March 2011 when a bus bound for casinos crashed in the Bronx on Interstate 95. The bus slid on its side and the top was peeled off like a tin can when it hit a traffic pole. Some first responders were so overwhelmed by the gruesome sight that they required counseling.

Two months later a tour bus overturned in central Virginia, killing four and injuring dozens. No other vehicles were involved.

These are just two examples of the escalating number of intercity bus accidents now plaguing our highways. Bus accidents kill about 50 and injure almost 1,000 other innocent passengers every year—and the biggest reason is driver fatigue.

Federal and state regulatory agencies responded last year by launching police sting operations to perform safety checks on intercity buses.

What Happened?

Bus travel used to be one of the safest and least stressful modes of transportation in America.

To find the answer you have to go back to 1982. Ronald Reagan deregulated the intercity bus industry, allowing just about anyone who owned a motor coach to form a bus company.

The industry was very different prior to deregulation. The  Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) represented 20,000 Greyhound and Continental Trailways workers in the early ’80s. Today, after 30 years of deregulation, Greyhound has merged with Trailways and employs just 3,500.

The company now competes with a couple of big “over-the-road” (OTR) providers and 4,000 smaller “curbside” bus operators. Curbside operators usually own no more than three or four buses and pick up riders on city streets rather than at bus stations.

Obviously, deregulation has succeeded in bringing competition to the OTR industry. But far from improving service, many if not most curbside operators have increased their profits by neglecting needed maintenance and ignoring safety and accessibility regulations.

As a result, these irresponsible carriers take advantage of low-income passengers who unwittingly board their dangerous vehicles because they can’t afford anything else.

Shameful Practices

Shameful employment practices have also become the norm, practices that threaten the lives of passengers and ensure that these employees remain among the ranks of the working poor.

Studies show that driving a bus is one of the most stressful occupations anyone can have. These drivers must transport precious human cargo in long, 20-ton machines for many hours over interstate highways and narrow city streets while avoiding hazards, keeping the peace, and meeting the needs of any passenger who walks through their doors.

But the wages of most of these drivers are abysmally low. The website pegs the top wage of Coach USA drivers at just $29,000 per year. The low wages often force workers to take a second job during their off hours—hours in which they should be resting before their next run.

In order to save even more money, discount operators encourage or coerce their drivers to work overtime, thus avoiding the need to hire enough drivers to actually do the work.

Adding insult to injury, intercity bus providers don’t pay overtime. They don’t have to. That’s right—a little-known provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act exempts them from paying overtime after 40 hours a week. Some drivers may work as many as 100 hours a week—all at the same rate.

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