The rate of accidents on Nassau buses went down by 60 percent in the first six months that Veolia Transportation operated the bus system as compared with the same period last year, Veolia and MTA records show.
While the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says that severe weather early in 2011 played a role, NICE chief executive Michael Setzer said the drop has more to do with Veolia's increased focus on safety.
From January through June 2012, NICE buses were involved in 1.35 accidents for every 100,000 miles they were on the road, according to Veolia figures. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had an accident rate of 3.36 per 100,000 miles in the first six months of 2011, according to its figures.
The MTA operated Nassau's bus system from 1973 until Dec. 31 of last year.
Transportation consultant Dennis McNeill, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., said that comparing a full year of service, rather than six months, would give a better picture of both agencies' accident rates.
Veolia and MTA officials say their data for the first six months of the year take into account every incident of a bus coming in contact with another object, including minor brushes with utility poles or clipping a car's side-view mirror.
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the agency's figures should be mitigated by the severe weather in the first two months of 2011 as compared with the mild weather early this year. In addition, Ortiz said, there were more buses driving more routes.
"There are different factors involved -- one being that buses last year traveled more than a million more miles than NICE due to the fact that we provided more service," Ortiz said.
Setzer said that the difference in miles traveled between MTA Long Island Bus and NICE should not affect the accident rate. He acknowledged that snow and icy roads early in 2011 would have contributed to more accidents, but not enough to account for the disparity between the two agencies' accident rates.
"When the weather is bad, I wouldn't be shocked at a small uptick in the number of accidents, but nothing of this scale," Setzer said. "I think part of it is that our approach to safety is probably more intense. For private companies, safety is a bottom-line issue."
Setzer said NICE's accident rate factors into its insurance costs and also is an important indicator of managers' performance. To that end, Setzer said, employees attend hourlong training meetings each month.
NICE officials said the company also has improved maintenance on its fleet of 300 buses, which, unlike the MTA, are subject to regular state Department of Transportation inspections.
McNeill disputed Setzer's assertion that the 1.17 million more miles that the MTA traveled as compared with NICE was statistically irrelevant.
"If you drive more miles, you're going to spend more hours exposed to hazards," said McNeill, who has worked in the bus industry for 40 years. "A bus that's in the garage is not going to have an accident."
Independent figures compiled by the Federal Transit Administration also show NICE has reduced the number of bus accidents in the first five months of 2012.
According to the FTA's National Transit Database, which considers only major bus collisions, MTA Long Island Bus averaged five accidents per month from January until May, compared with 2.17 for NICE.
Nationally, public transportation agencies averaged 0.37 accidents a month in 2011, according to the database.
Pat Bowden, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 252, which represents NICE drivers, said she's skeptical of the figures and has observed a more frequent occurrence of accidents among drivers since Veolia took over, especially among inexperienced drivers.
Setzer noted that most of NICE's drivers were brought over from MTA Long Island Bus. He added that the accident rate for new drivers, who had to undergo 140 hours of training, is slightly lower than that of former MTA bus operators.
County Executive Edward Mangano, who pushed for privatization of Nassau's bus system last year, said in a statement that NICE has "truly proven to be a more safe, affordable and reliable option for Nassau County residents."