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Tougher rules for bus companies proposed

WASHINGTON -- It would be harder for tour bus companies to win permission to operate and easier for the government to put rogue operators out of business under a series of bus safety steps announced yesterday by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Other proposals he announced would make it easier for the government to take away bus drivers' commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws while operating a vehicle other than a bus or if they fail to pay fines.

Attention to bus safety by Transportation Department officials and members of Congress has been heightened since the March 12 crash in the Bronx of a bus returning to Chinatown after an overnight excursion to a Connecticut casino. Fifteen people were killed when the bus, which safety investigators say was traveling at its maximum possible speed of 78 mph, went off a highway and struck a utility pole, peeling off its roof.

A passenger has said the driver fell asleep; the driver has said he was alert and well-rested. The accident is being investigated by the State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The new proposals would require bus companies to pass a safety audit before receiving federal permission to operate. The audit would include an interview with the company's owners and a safety examination of the drivers and vehicles.

Tour buses transport more than 700 million passengers a year, nearly as many as U.S. airlines, but current regulations allow them to go into business and operate for as long as 18 months without a safety evaluation, said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Penalties for operating buses without federal permission would increase from $2,000 a day to as much as $25,000.

The department also would have greater authority to pursue enforcement action against unsafe "reincarnated" companies, which are operations that go out of business in one location after being cited for safety violations and reopen in another location under a new name.

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