By Jill Colvin
MANHATTAN — Two fatal Chinatown bus crashes in three days are raising new fears among passengers and politicians about the safety of discount interstate buses whose popularity has soared in recent years.
A tour bus on it's way to Philadelphia from Chinatown crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike Monday killing two people and injuring 40 more. Federal investigators are still also trying to piece together exactly what caused another Chinatown tour bus to flip over and careen into a sign pole on I-95, killing 15 people as it was returning from the Mohegan Sun casino Saturday.
"You do feel a little unsafe," said Queens resident Natasha Jackson, 46, who considered driving to Baltimore instead of taking a Bolt Bus from Midtown. "But I'm just praying, praying that I make it."
Melanie Arena, 39, who was on her way back to Baltimore after a trip to the city, said that driving can always be a risk, even when she's the one behind the wheel. But the recent accidents had made her take pause.
"It’s scary when you hear about a crash," she said, adding that there were few feasible alternatives considering the high price of trains.
Others, however, said they weren't concerned.
"I just go and put everything in the hands of God," said one passenger from Yonkers on her way to Washington, D.C. "That's all you can do."
Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees motor coach operator safety, said it's up to carriers to abide by federal safety regulations, but the agency conducts both random roadside inspections as well as compliance reviews, where federal and state inspectors audit operators’ records.
Still, many operators continue to load their buses with passengers despite serious violation histories.
Super Luxury Tours, which was involved in the New Jersey crash, has been cited with numerous violations, and is under alert for unsafe driving, fatigued driving and driver fitness violations, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records.
The safety violations put the operator in the 99.6th percentile for unsafe driving violations, including speeding and disobeying traffic signals. Company buses have also been involved in four crashes in the past two years, records show.
The company did not immediately respond to a call for comment.
Sen. Chuck Schumer held a press conference at City Hall on Monday calling for tigher regulations of discount buses.
World Wide Tours is also under alert for five fatigued driving regulations. Last May, a driver was cited for working longer than the allowable 10-hour shift. Other violations include shoddy log-book record keeping. Records show its buses have been in two accidents over the past two years.
Should passengers be concerned?
"I don’t think so," said Word Wide spokesman Eric Brodie, who declined to comment on the investigation, but said that staff have been co-operating fully.
Other popular carriers based outside of Chinatown also have histories of violations.
Greyhound, which operates buses under the popular BoltBus brand, has a better than average record, but has still received 141 fatigued driving violations and a citation for a driver's possible use of alcohol four hours prior to duty over the past two years.
"The safety and security of our passengers is our core value and a responsibility we take very seriously," said spokeswoman Maureen Richmond, who added that drivers undergo extensive background checks and comprehensive training.
Megabus Northeast has also been issued violations for fatigued drivers and unsafe driving, although its record is also better than average.
"Passengers do not need to be concerned," said company president Dale Moser. "Safety has been and will continue to be our number one priority at Megabus."
Kim Muleller, 45, said she was told by locals not to take a Chinatown bus because of the recent crashes. She has ridden the bus between NYC and her home in Boston several times, and "nothing happened so far."
"I've never had a bad experience with a Chinatown bus," she said. "It's cheap — very cheap. And fast — the bus driver drives fast. I've heard others take longer."
Evalis Soto, 20, who was waiting on Chrystie Street for a Lucky Star bus to Boston, said she was surprised by the recent accidents and the bad track records of some companies.
"I never really thought about it like that," said Soto, who was taking a Chinatown bus for only the second time. "It definitely gives me a second outlook on it — makes me think a little bit more."