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The Break Room: Get Me Off This Bus!

Feb. 7, 2013
Whether you travel by hired car or public bus, you're putting your life in the driver's hands.

In December, my husband and I traveled on Megabus from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. For those of you not familiar with Megabus or their brightly colored, double-decker buses, this bus carrier is famous for special travel deals as low as $1 and has accommodations that are, in my opinion, more comfortable and pleasant than other types of bus travel I've experienced. On this trip, we missed out on discounts and paid full price, but we were happy to settle into the front seats on the second level, where we could relax, let the driver do the work, and watch the miles zip by through the huge front windows.

Unfortunately,  "relaxation" wasn't in the cards for this trip.  Just outside Pittsburgh, our driver realized he was going the wrong direction.  He responded by slamming on his brakes – even though we were traveling in the left lane of a highway – and veering wildly to come to a sudden, violent stop on the left shoulder.  He proceeded to pull across the median, badly scraping the bottom of the bus against the ground in the process, to make a U-turn. We lurched back onto the highway as cars approaching at full-speed were forced to slow down or change lanes to avoid hitting us.

Seconds later, the driver missed the clearly marked exit – again – for the highway we needed. This driver was either distracted or clueless about the route.  Either issue is a safety concern on its own, but what was more troubling was the driver's reaction to his mistakes. The missteps made him drive in an angry, aggressive manner.  His speeding, tailgating and occasional lane drifting continued on and off throughout the trip.

I have never before felt so unsafe on a bus.  I also felt completely helpless and at the mercy of a driver who might be exhausted or prone to road rage. I actually shot off a few text messages to friends so they would be informed if I ended up in a major accident – that's how distressing the experience was.  And my concern didn't end once I finally stepped off the bus in Cleveland in one piece – I wanted to learn more about this bus company's safety culture and how passengers' safety concerns might be addressed.

Some preliminary research indicated that bus companies like Megabus and Greyhound received satisfactory safety ratings from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the highest rating available. Megabus has had a few high-profile safety incidents over the years, including a 2010 fatal accident that occurred when a lost driver went off route in Toronto and slammed into a highway overpass, killing four passengers.  And in a 1-week period in August 2012, three separate incidents involving the company's buses lead to a spate of media attention about bus transportation safety.

When I spoke to Don Carmichael, EVP West and South and  SVP of Safety for Megabus and Coach USA (Megabus is a subsidiary of Coach USA), he insisted "safety is top-of-mind through the entire organization" and pointed out the company has carried more than 22 million passengers between 120 U.S. cities.

"We have a very high safety culture," Carmichael said. He stressed that the comprehensive driver training conducted at a central training school and the company's state-of-the-art technology – including a support center that tracks, in real time, whether a Megabus driver is speeding or going off route – further enhance safety.  The support system, for example, issues safety alerts to drivers that display only after the bus has been stopped for at least 20 seconds to prevent distracted driving. 

It's too bad these excellent safety systems didn't appear to assist my driver last December. Carmichael assured me that any safety complaints are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. I made an official safety complaint to the company, which yielded a form email nearly 2 weeks later apologizing for my frustration and assuring that "appropriate measures will be taken to avoid a reoccurrence."

For the sake of anyone stepping on a bus and putting his or her life in the hands of the driver, I sure hope that's true.

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