Five days before a bus company with an “unsatisfactory” safety record had a fatal crash last year, the U.S. Transportation Department indicated it would back off efforts to shut it down, documents show.
An upgrade in Sky Express Inc.’s rating, which was poor enough to force it off the road, was pending when a bus carrying 58 passengers overturned on Interstate 95 near Doswell, Virginia, last May 31, killing 4 passengers and injuring 49, according to National Transportation Safety Board documents records.
The company was operating after being cited for 204 violations in 94 roadside inspections in the 10 months before the accident, according to records made public today as part of the independent agency’s investigation into the crash.
Anne Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, told Bloomberg News last year that a Sky Express consultant’s statements that her agency was negotiating to keep Sky Express in business or reduce pending penalties in the days before the crash were “false.”
“Sky Express was not on the verge of receiving an upgraded safety rating or a reduced fine for safety violations,” Ferro said at the time.
The Sky Express crash was the third in a span of 11 weeks along I-95 between Virginia and New York last year. Those crashes sparked a yearlong investigation that resulted in an unprecedented enforcement sweep last month in which the bus regulator closed 26 companies, many of them operating to and from New York’s Chinatown, as imminent safety hazards.
On May 26, 2011, FMCSA enforcement officials completed a four-day compliance review, or CR, to determine whether Sky Express had fixed safety problems discovered in April that were severe enough to warrant an “unsatisfactory” rating.
The investigators’ findings were under review when the accident occurred on May 31, the NTSB report said. “However, at the conclusion of this CR the FMCSA indicated that the company would probably receive a proposed rating of ‘Conditional,’” it said.
That rating would have let Sky Express remain on the road if not for the accident, which prompted the FMCSA to order it shut down.
The bus agency’s division administrator, who has final authority on the outcome of compliance reviews, wasn’t considering a rating upgrade for Sky Express after the on-site review completed May 26, Justin Nisly, a Transportation Department spokesman, said in an e-mail.
“Both the division administrator and the FMCSA investigator assigned to the case had significant concerns about Sky Express’s efforts to come into compliance with safety regulations, and made clear to the company that no decision had been reached and that the investigation was continuing,” Nisly said.
A 45-day appeal period for Sky Express to show it had fixed its safety shortcomings or be shut down began April 13, 2011, meaning it was set to expire before the crash. The bus agency instead extended the appeal period by 10 days. The crash happened during that 10-day extension.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said after the crash that the extension shouldn’t have been given and that no more would be during his tenure.
The FMCSA’s failure to close Sky Express was part of a pattern over its 12-year history and was linked to a growing number of crashes, some of them fatal, Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in an interview last year.
Charlotte, North Carolina-based Sky Express didn’t have written safety policies or a driver’s handbook on drug and alcohol use, seat belts and mobile-phone use, the NTSB found. Its only criteria for hiring drivers was that the applicant held a commercial driver’s license and be 21 years of age or older, it said.
Kin Yiu Cheung, the 37-year-old driver in the Sky Express crash, was hired in July 2010 with no previous commercial driving experience, according to the NTSB. He was previously employed as a restaurant delivery driver.
The company’s registered address was the Charlotte home of its corporate secretary, even though most of its business was conducted in New York’s Chinatown.
Sky Express kept its 32 motorcoaches in a rented lot in Brooklyn and relied on various repair shops in New York for maintenance, the NTSB found. Like many so-called curbside carriers, the company didn’t have a terminal or its own maintenance facility.
There were no procedures for reporting defects except to call the company’s vice president, the NTSB said.
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