Investigating curbside buses: Is discount travel cutting on safe - FOX 32 News Chicago

Investigating curbside buses: Is discount travel cutting on safety?

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Over the next two weeks, thousands of travelers will board discount buses, heading home for the Thanksgiving holidays, but a FOX 32 investigation has uncovered some serious safety problems for one of Illinois' most popular curbside bus companies.

A double-decker Megabus headed from Chicago to St. Louis crashed into a bridge, killing one passenger and injuring almost 50 others back in 2011. Four days later, a Megabus in Chicago made a left turn, killing an elderly woman when its mirror hit her. The next day, a Megabus in Georgia bursts into flames. Now, three months later, passengers still love traveling by Megabus.

"It's a good ride for the most part, and it's convenient, so that's why I ride it," said one traveler.

"I think it's fantastic. I was comfortable," says another bus passenger. "I thoroughly enjoyed it, I'll do it again."

Experts say the curbside bus business is booming.

"New hubs are emerging every year. We're seeing double digit growth," explains DePaul University's Joe Schwieterman. "It's the fastest form of inter city travel three years running now."

But, some say the industry's rapid growth is causing mechanical and human breakdowns.

"Bus drivers are working hours far beyond what any human should work driving a bus," says Larry Hanley, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

After the Megabus accidents, Governor Quinn asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to investigate the company's safety practices.

FOX 32 News began our own investigation. We followed Megabuses and caught one of them going 47 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone. Another hit 72 where the speed limit was 55.

The company told us its buses are tracked by GPS and drivers found speeding are either disciplined or fired. But, there are easier ways to check on bus safety than following the buses.

Some companies use surveillance cameras. We even caught a driver for another bus company--not Megabus--using a cell phone. The driver gets distracted and almost rear-ends an SUV.

Cameras also helped another bus company capture the view from the driver's seat during an accident in Long Island.

Another alternative to following those buses is to follow their paper trails -- the reports showing annual and random inspections by Illinois State Police. Doing that led us straight to Lex Express, a Champaign company with routes connecting colleges and towns all over Illinois.

Next week, Lex Express buses will be packed with students heading home for Thanksgiving, even though three weeks ago, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration warned the company that it's maintenance, repairs and driver's logs are so poor it will be shut down on December 7th if it doesn't clean up it act.

"You're telling me that the bus driver could be fatigued? Big no no!" says a mother, Christine Aripidis.

Christine Arapidis' daughter and friends ride Lex Express buses to and from Illinois State University in Bloomington. She'd heard nothing about safety violations uncovered by the feds, including the false reporting of "records of duty status," where drivers document how long they've been on the road. Driver's Union President Larry Hanley says for all bus companies nationwide, NTSB statistics show fatigued drivers are the number one cause of fatal bus accidents.

"Bus drivers are driving down the road, following asleep, getting that same feeling we all get when we start to pass out at the wheel. But they are carrying 50 or 60 people on those buses," says Hanley.

Lex Express declined to answer any questions on camera, saying in a statement that "safety is a priority for our company and we maintain high standards in passenger safety." The company added, "Lex feels the violations we are being charged with in the latest safety review have been handled unjustly."

That's not good enough for Christine Aripidis, though, who says she's looking for another way to get the kids to college.

"It makes me feel very scared, No, no more after this trip. No more."

The bus companies with the best safety records get a rating of "satisfactory" from the feds and companies with problems get what is called a "conditional" rating. Safety advocates like to pose this question: would you travel on an airline that only had a ‘conditional' rating?

 

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