Editorial: Rating system will help inter-city bus riders choose safety

Passengers prepare to load a Fung Wah bus

Passengers prepare to load a Fung Wah bus before leaving Manhattan for Boston (Credit: Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Transportation late last week slammed the brakes on the Fung Wah bus company -- a Chinatown fixture at Canal Street and Bowery, and one of the first bargain carriers in a now-booming business.

The shutdown is bad news for the company's many fans, who loved its cut-rate fares -- for example, $15 for a one-way ticket to Boston. But it's great news for customers who expect basic safety with their rides.

And thanks to a law passed by Congress last year, it didn't take another horrifying crash to get the feds to act.

The legislation allows the DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to rescind the registration of bus companies that fail to comply with safety inquiries.

The feds say Fung Wah failed to inspect, repair and maintain older buses in its fleet, and contend that its operation poses a public hazard.

A Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities investigation found buses with cracked frames and botched repairs. Massachusetts and the DOT initially took 21 of the company's 28 buses off the roads.

Then the DOT shut the company down.

Fung Wah has had a spotty safety record for a while. Among other accidents, a Fung Wah bus burst into flames on Interstate 91 in Connecticut in 2005, leaving more than 50 riders frantically trying to escape.

This is not to say all bargain carriers are rolling safety hazards. Many have vigorous standards, regulators point out. Some are owned by the nation's major bus operators.

So how does a consumer know which lines are safest?

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) inserted a measure into the new law that tells the DOT to devise a user-friendly bus safety rating system. It's still in the works, but will require scores to be posted where riders buy their tickets.

It's a great idea. What Schumer suggests is a letter-grade system like the one the city uses for restaurants. The DOT may or may not do it that way. But why shouldn't it? There are lots of good bargain bus companies out there.

Why would anyone opt for a line with a scarlet letter?

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