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Traveling by bus? Choose a safe ride

Courtesy of Megabus.com

Each year about 750 million passenger trips are taken by bus. "Thanksgiving is one of the biggest travel weeks," said Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer for Coach USA/Megabus.com.

With Thanksgiving almost here, many people will be jumping on buses to head home or to grandma’s house.

They won’t be alone. Each year about 750 million passenger trips are taken by bus, a mode of travel that has experienced very large growth in the last six to seven years, according to the American Bus Association Foundation.

There is no official data for nationwide bus travel for Thanksgiving week, but Coach USA/megabus.com expects about 60 percent to 70 percent more travelers than during a typical week. 

“Thanksgiving is one of the biggest travel weeks,” said Dale Moser, the company’s president and chief operating officer.

For the week of Nov. 21-27, the company will carry between 160,000 and 210,000 passengers, a 28 percent to 35 percent increase from last year, Moser said.

“With convenient departure options and comfortable motorcoaches with power outlets and Wi-Fi, it's no wonder people are choosing buses over rising gas prices and crowded airports,” U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote in his blog last week. “America's commercial buses are a safe, affordable choice for your holiday travel.”

But recent news reports detail companies being put out of business and high-profile crashes.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the agency that enforces safety regulation of interstate bus companies, recently conducted surprise safety inspections, shutting down a N.C.-based passenger van company after investigators found it in violation of multiple federal standards, including using drivers without the required medical qualifications, violating hours-of-service rules for drivers, operating without the proper insurance, and using vehicles that were not regularly inspected and repaired, according to the agency.

FMCSA has removed more than 900 unsafe buses or drivers from the roads across the U.S. Over the past five years, FMCSA has doubled the number of bus inspections and comprehensive safety reviews of the nation's passenger bus companies.

A recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report found that curbside buses, a thriving industry based on cheap fares, had a fatal accident rate seven times that of conventional bus operators.

"Motorcoach safety is on the NTSB's Most Wanted List because of the potential for high-consequence accidents,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, NTSB’s chairman, said in a statement. "It's time to recognize that traditional transportation services have morphed into new business models that challenge existing regulatory constructs.”

FMCSA is overburdened, the federal report found, citing an average of slightly more than one inspector for every 1,000 bus companies. In general, though, motorcoach travel was found to be safe.

Bus safety  a concern?
“Buses are a great way to travel. They are affordable, fast, convenient, and are very safe in many ways,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the North American director of Make Roads Safe, a global campaign, and director of road safety for the FIA Foundation for the Automobile, a nonprofit group based in London.

“For the most part, people are protected by the large size of the bus,” Dinh-Zarr said. Other safety benefits include not having to worry about falling asleep at the wheel or driving with distractions. Passengers can work, talk to friends or listen to music in a relatively stress-free environment.

Other benefits that make bus travel attractive include the fact that today there are a greater number of bus companies operating, servicing more locations and cities than ever, she said, “but it is important to make sure the carrier you are using meets some basic criteria.” 

Choose a safe ride
To assess bus safety, Dinh-Zarr said consumers should look at the company (which includes the bus itself and whether the driver is certified) and the pickup location.

The company should have operating authority from FMCSA and be insured, and the bus should have up-to-date inspections, provide emergency exits and secure storage areas for luggage. A piece of luggage not secured properly can become a projectile in high speeds, she said, and could cause brain injury, for example.

The pickup location should be a safe place for pedestrians to board, like bus terminals, side streets, rest stops or gas stations, not along highways, which is dangerous. 

Dinh-Zarr recommends FMCSA’s Passenger Bus Safety page, a one-stop shopping site to learn about a company’s credentials, safety record and safety rating, before buying a ticket or hiring a bus company for group travel.

The page features a safety checklist detailing facts that travelers should verify and an online tool to search for companies by name, zip code or state to help select interstate carriers that comply with federal requirements.

“Look for a company with a satisfactory rating; the more recent the rating, the safer,” wrote Secretary LaHood.

“Buses are a really a safe and affordable way to travel — if you do your homework,” Dinh-Zarr said.

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Tanya Mohn reports about travel — from breaking news to human interest stories. Follow her on Twitter