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Senator calls for more oversight of “jitney” bus companies after fatal New Jersey bus accident

Written by Steve Gursten Posted September 23rd, 2013

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez cites lax oversight and a bus and transportation industry culture of incentivizing dangerous bus driving as causes for concern

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez

With all the recent developments in interstate travel and the regulation of the trucking and motor coach industry, including the new hours of service regulations, sometimes interested parties may overlook smaller commercial transport operations that manage to fly under the radar.

It’s easy to focus on large truck accidents and bus crashes, and forget about small commercial operations which can be just as dangerous when those small commercial transport companies cut corners on safety.

Sadly, there was a stark reminder of how dangerous these smaller companies can be last month.

In West New York, New Jersey, an out of control “jitney” bus operated by a company called Boulevard Lines) careened off the road, struck a light pole, a tree, and a second street lamp, before coming to a stop, according to a recent story on nj.com, “West New York baby’s death spurs senator’s call for fed action on jitney buses.”

Tragically, one of the street poles fell onto an 8-month-old baby in a stroller, leaving her dead. The out of control bus also caused a four car pileup which sent seven people to the hospital.

A jitney bus is a motor vehicle, typically a small bus or van, which transports a limited number of passengers for a low fee. The jitneys usually have a prescribed route. Typically, the industry practice is for jitney drivers to rent the buses or vans from a company for a day. The bus drivers then make their wage based on volume.

The driver of the out-of-control jitney bus had a horrendous safety record. The bus driver had been involved in an accident in 2012, and had been issued six traffic tickets dating back to 2011, according to one source on nj.com. And as if all that was not bad enough, this dangerous bus driver was using his cell phone at the time of the bus accident. He was charged with death by auto, reckless driving and using a cellular phone while operating a vehicle.

But let’s not forget the bus company itself, which was also very dangerous. This bus company was operating with a classic “profit over everything” mentality. Records indicated that in 2011 following random inspections, Boulevard Lines had two drivers removed from the road. These records also indicated that following eight separate inspections, four of Boulevard Lines’ buses were taken out of service by the FMCSA.

This bus accident highlights an important issue: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) needs to do more to regulate the jitney bus industry.

Following this crash, United States Senator, Robert Menendez, called on the Secretary of Transportation to prompt the FMCSA to assemble a task force to review regulation of jitney buses.

Senator Menendez conceded that jitneys are not frequently discussed in Washington, but in a letter addressed to the Secretary of Transportation, he highlighted the shortcomings of the current regulatory regime. He pointed out that:

“While some of these operators are law-abiding and responsible, other operators have had a poor reputation of safety with numerous reports of overly aggressive driving, distracted driving, and reckless driving.”

He also emphasized that it is unknown how many of these bus companies are operating, nor whether their drivers are being adequately trained in safety and driving.

Beyond this, Sen. Menendez’s letter highlighted the inherently dangerous business model that the industry operates within: “Because jitney drivers earn wages based on volume, this can lead to competition between jitney drivers for passengers, which potentially encourages unsafe driving,” he wrote.

But the Senator’s call to action did not stop there. He went on to call for increased scrutiny of the industry’s hiring and training practices, the inspection and maintenance of the fleets, and more action to get unsafe jitney buses off of the road. The letter concluded that the FMCSA needs to have greater oversight over the industry more generally.

As a truck accident attorney who has also successfully litigated many bus crashes, I applaud Sen. Menendez’s call to action. It is important to recognize that these buses, though relatively small, can be just as deadly as a large motor coach or a semi-truck when a dangerous bus driver or a bad bus company is in the driver’s seat. The industry is perpetuated by an unsafe business model that incentivizes dangerous driving, and it seems as though the proliferation of dangerous truck companies and motor coaches has allowed the issue of dangerous jitney buses to slip through the cracks.

Hopefully the Senator’s letter will result in swift and decisive action by the FMCSA. It is unfortunate that it took the death of an infant to finally draw attention to these dangerous bus companies that  put everyone at risk.

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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