By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
MANHATTAN — The state is cracking down on tour bus operators following two fatal crashes involving Chinatown buses that left 17 people dead over the past week.
The state Department of Transportation in conjunction with state police pulled 10 bus drivers off the road Thursday following surprise inspections of 36 buses throughout the state.
The drivers — stopped on Long Island, in the Catskills and at the Canadian border — were taken off the road for having incomplete logbooks recording their hours on the road, officials said. No vehicles were placed out of service as a result.
The inspections came after a bus bound to Chinatown from a Connecticut casino early Saturday morning flipped in the Bronx, killing 15 passengers on board and injuring over a dozen people.
The driver of that bus, Ophadell Williams, had his drivers license suspended Thursday after a state investigation revealed that he allegedly lied about the status of his license on an application, possibly to hide the fact that he had been using multiple names and had a suspension under one of those names, state officials said.
On Monday night, another Chinatown bus bound for Philadelphia crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing two and leaving dozens injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Bronx crash and gathering information from the New Jersey crash, and planned to interview Williams about the incident on Tuesday.
Williams told authorities that his bus was clipped by a tractor-trailer while driving on I-95, but witnesses reported that he might have fallen asleep at the wheel.
The NTSB is investigating the bus and tractor-trailer's engine control modules, or black boxes, to help determine how fast the vehicles were going at the time of the accident, as well as GPS systems and physical marks left on the two vehicles that would back up Williams' account.
The inspections will continue over the next several weeks at additional checkpoints throughout the state, officials said.
Workers in the increasingly competitive Chinatown tour bus industry, which offers cut-rate fares to destinations along the East Coast, said the job presents challenges to drivers.
"I think most companies overwork drivers," said Mike Bui, manager of the year-and-a-half-old Brothers Bus Line on Allen Street, which has a six-bus fleet that travels to the Carolinas.
"It's so much competition. Sometimes the company doesn't hire new drivers, and they work [current drivers] extra," he added. "They don't sleep. They don't rest."
He added that some carriers frown upon drivers declining extra shifts because it appears "lazy," and that drivers risk getting fired for not always making themselves available to work.
Other Chinatown bus workers explained that traffic issues create added stress for the drivers, who take short breaks in between trips that can sometimes last up to 12 hours.
"The traffic issue, sometimes it makes you nervous," said Ray Kuang, who works as a ticket seller for Luck Star Bus on Chrystie Street and said he often encourages drivers to drink or coffee or eat something when they look exhausted. "When you focus for a long period of time, you lose your focus. You get distracted."
One Lucky Star driver said he takes many precautions to ensure he doesn't get fatigued during his trips between New York City and Boston, which last about 11 hours round-trip with a two-hour break in between.
"You prepare yourself, you make sure you get enough rest," said Richard Freeman, just before departing on the second leg of his trip back to Boston this week. "Eat something, open a window. You don't put people's lives at risk."