Commentary

Bus safety an issue for colleges

Updated: July 12, 2009, 1:40 PM ET
By Paula Lavigne | ESPN

The Adrian College women's hockey team was riding home to Michigan from a November game in Wisconsin when the charter bus driver braked hard and swerved to miss a deer.

Everyone was fine, but the jolt sent goalie Erin Roach into a panic. Memories flooded back to the day four years ago when a bus carrying her former team, the Windsor Wildcats, slammed into a parked semitrailer and nearly split in half. Roach's mother, Cathy Roach, died in the accident, along with coach Rick Edwards, his teenage son, Brian, and the driver of the tractor-trailer.

[+] EnlargeKelly Edwards/Jason Mailloux/Erin Roach
Paula Lavigne for ESPN.com Kelly Edwards, Jason Mailloux, Erin Roach were on the Windsor Wildcats bus when it crashed in January 2005.

Since then, headphones help Erin cope with the anxiety of long bus rides.

"My main concern is safety," she said. "Am I going to be safe on this bus?"

Athletes, parents and coaches might want to be asking that question. An "Outside the Lines" analysis found that hundreds of college athletes have been traveling on charter buses whose companies have fallen short of federal safety standards. At least 85 Division I universities used charter bus companies during 2007 and 2008 that have had one or more deficient federal safety scores, the analysis revealed. That's almost one-third of all D-I schools.

Of those 85 schools, about 35 have used companies with an overall "conditional" rating, which means they have a more serious record of infractions. A conditional rating is a step below "satisfactory" and is often where industry leaders and regulators would suggest schools refrain from using the company.

Crashes, faulty brakes, worn tires, unqualified drivers and speeding tickets can contribute to a company's bad record. Several companies got dinged for problems with their logbooks. Drivers must enter their hours and obey rules about the amount of time they drive in an effort to prevent fatigue behind the wheel. Some logbooks were incomplete; some showed they hadn't followed the rules. Inspectors found emergency exits that didn't work, and in one case discovered a window exit that had been bolted shut. They fined companies for letting people drive before they tested them for drugs and alcohol or checked their driving record.

"Outside the Lines" contacted several college athletic departments that had used companies with deficient scores. Officials had little, if any, knowledge of the violations, even though detailed safety records are available on a U.S. Department of Transportation Web site.

"That means they're not paying attention to what's important," said Bill Maulsby, president of The BusBank, a Chicago company that books buses for several college sports teams. "They're looking at price versus the other bigger realities of 'Is this operator a quality operator?'"

Studies have shown that companies with deficient scores are more likely to be involved in crashes. John Hill, former administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. DOT that regulates charter buses, said scores don't always tell the full story, but should be red flags.

"There's no reason for a bus company to ever get anything less than a satisfactory rating," Hill said. "Universities employing this kind of a carrier should bring them in and they should say 'How are you going to fix these areas? And until you do so, we're going to consider other options.'"

Some bus company executives criticize the federal ratings for being outdated and misleading, giving too much weight to small errors. The U.S. DOT recently stepped up inspections nationwide to improve the data driving the scores by which companies are evaluated.

Concerns over bus safety in the nation's top athletic programs should raise attention at all levels, said Ann Franke, author of the 2006 guide "Safety in Student Transportation."

Division I schools, which were the focus of the "Outside the Lines" analysis, have the most resources. Franke said lower-level school or club teams with less money would likely have the same or greater difficulty booking a safe bus company.

Crashes on the rise

[+] EnlargeBluffton University
AP Photo/Gene BlytheFive players on the Bluffton University baseball team died in this bus crash in Atlanta in March 2007, along with the driver and his wife.

More athletes are riding buses today, especially in budget-conscious times when airfares and extra bag fees make it expensive to fly. And busing athletes is statistically safer than renting 15-passenger vans, which many colleges stopped after a series of fatal crashes.

Yet the number of bus crashes has climbed. Overall in the United States, there were 13,195 buses involved in accidents in 2007, up from 8,555 in 2003. In those five years, 1,651 people have died in bus crashes.

Among those were five players from the baseball team at Bluffton University in Ohio. On March 2, 2007, their charter bus careened off an interstate bridge in Atlanta and onto the highway below. The driver and his wife also died. Federal investigators said the driver likely mistook an exit ramp for a through lane, which was poorly marked. The company had a good record before the trip, with the exception of the driver's lapsed medical certificate.

The accident involving Erin Roach and the Windsor women's hockey intermediate league team happened on a snowy western New York highway near Rochester on Jan. 29, 2005. The team had shut out the Rochester Edge and was 45 minutes into a late-afternoon drive to a nearby ski resort when the bus veered and sliced into the rear of a semitrailer parked on the shoulder. Both vehicles ended up in a ditch. Someone kicked out a back window of the bus and people jumped out. Roach saw her mother near the front of the bus amid the collapsed seats.

"I was hysterical," Erin said. "Everyone was just trying to calm me down. I was screaming 'Get her off the bus! Get her off the bus!'"

The team's other goalie, Kelly Edwards, had been napping on two seats in the middle of the bus and was thrown to the floor. Her cousin, Jason Mailloux, landed on her. As they got up, Edwards saw her father's body draped over a seat behind her near the back of the bus. He had been sitting in the very front of the bus. She knew immediately he was dead. She found out later that her teenage brother also died.

New York state police investigators said the driver, Ryan Comfort, then 24, fell asleep at the wheel. He had stayed up late the night before, picked up the team at 3:30 a.m., then driven about six hours to Rochester. He'd watched the morning hockey game and taken a few short trips around town instead of catching a nap before driving to the ski resort, investigators said. A grand jury declined to indict Comfort on felony charges. He pleaded guilty to one traffic violation and one charge of lying about how many hours he drove that day.

Extra hours

Drivers squeezing in extra hours were just one factor plaguing some of the companies flagged in ESPN's analysis.

ESPN asked 333 Division I universities for the names of the bus companies they use to transport athletes and matched those names against company scores and ratings provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The analysis flagged at least 85 Division-I schools whose teams traveled with bus companies that had a less than satisfactory overall rating or had deficient drivers, buses or management.

A rating can be satisfactory, conditional or unsatisfactory. U.S. DOT inspectors issue ratings every few years after doing a top-to-bottom on-site review of items such as record books, drug-testing policies and results, bus maintenance and driver qualifications.

Another gauge of safety, known as SafeStat, generates numeric scores for a company's drivers and vehicles based upon tickets and problems found during routine roadside inspections. There are scores for accident rates and management as well. A score of 75 or above is considered deficient.

DATTCO, based in New Britain, Conn., had the worst scores among companies used by universities in the analysis. DATTCO had a driver score of 96.77, a vehicle score of 99.84 and a safety score of 85.66, as well as a conditional rating from its review in September. The company received a satisfactory compliance rating when inspectors conducted a follow-up review in February.

"We're absolutely a safe company," said DATTCO vice president Dennis Lyons. "We had a couple clerical issues. It's nothing that we didn't address. It's nothing that impacted safety at any time."

Roadside inspections within the past two years revealed a lot more than clerical flubs, however. Logbook violations; an improperly licensed driver; inoperative or defective brakes; missing or faulty emergency exits; and thin, flat or leaking tires, as well as several other maintenance problems, prompted inspectors to pull some DATTCO buses off the road in the past 30 months.

Even an underinflated tire can lead to problems, said driver Jim Patrey, who drives for Lone Star Coaches near Dallas.

"If you don't check your tire pressure, if tires are underinflated they heat up and they blow," he said. "Very tough to steer these things if you have a front blowout, a front-tire blowout."

Patrey is often on the road with teams from the University of North Texas. He believes the industry, overall, is safe. But he's aware of drivers for other companies pushing their hours and faking logbooks.

Lone Star has a solid safety record, and Patrey believes the federal scoring system is fair. But owners of some companies with deficient scores criticized the system for being inaccurate, unfair or overly critical.

Ray Land is president of Fabulous Coach Lines, in Branford, Fla., whose drivers were taken off the road four times from October 2007 through April 2008 for issues related to their logbooks and how long they had been driving. Despite having a deficient driver score, Land said he runs a safe company with new, attractive buses and keeps a close eye on the people behind the wheel.

"Hours of service is a bookkeeping thing," Land said. "It's something that nobody besides the [Department of Transportation] even looks at."

The United Motorcoach Association encourages people to use the federal safety database to research companies and ask questions if they see any problems, said association president Victor Parra. His advice: "Don't always buy on price. Do your homework."

If that's the assignment, college athletic departments could stand to do some studying.

The University of Utah had been using a Salt Lake City company, Lewis Stages, for some of its longer road trips for the football and basketball teams, but administrators there didn't know Lewis Stages had a conditional rating.

"I guess what I need to do is follow up and get a little better idea of what the reasons might be behind that," said procurement director Jim Parker.

Within days of learning of the rating from ESPN, the college had adopted a new policy, distributed a handbook on selecting safe charter bus companies and demanded answers from the company's top executives.

"Our concern is if we were to use a company that had safety violations we were unaware of, and there was an accident, it would be really unfortunate for both our institution and those that would be traveling," Parker said. From now on, he said, "If they want to get our business, they'll have to improve."

No one from Lewis Stages responded to ESPN's requests for an interview. Thirteen other Division I schools reported using Lewis Stages, including Louisiana State University, Michigan State University, UCLA, Cal State-Fullerton and Boise State University.

Kathy Harston, director of operations for the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, was surprised to learn that University Bus Lines, the company the team had been using on its trips to Fayetteville, Ark., had a bad rating.

"I'm concerned hearing that as well because that is information that was not provided to me," she said. "It was pretty much understood that that's really the only bus, local bus company that a lot of people use."

Visiting teams that take flights for games often rely on a host university to recommend a charter bus company for use during their stay. At home, colleges tend to have one or two designated companies that take them on long trips. Public universities often have to follow state contract rules to take the lowest bidder or follow some other budget guideline.

DATTCO, the Connecticut company, is a corporate sponsor for the University of Hartford athletic department. Hartford teams travel with DATTCO. The University of Connecticut also lists DATTCO as one of the recommended bus companies for visiting teams.

At least five other colleges reported to have used DATTCO in the past few years, including Michigan State, which has unknowingly used several companies with either bad ratings or scores. One of the local companies it takes from campus, Indian Trails, had a satisfactory rating but a deficient safety score.

The university wasn't aware of all the information online but has since directed anyone in the athletic department who books travel to check the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Web site first.

"The safety of our student-athletes is at the front of every decision we make," wrote athletic director Mark Hollis in an e-mail. "We have confidence in the services that are provided to Michigan State University, and we will continue to monitor all forms of travel with regards to safety for our student-athletes and staff."

Hill, the former federal safety administrator, said teams should scrutinize a company's safety even if they've used the same charter service for years.

"Ask questions. What is the DOT number? Go to the Web site," he said. "How long are they going to be driving? Do they have enough drivers in place to do that, to do it safely and legally?"

Maulsby, the BusBank CEO, said even if they're aware of the safety scores, they likely need help interpreting the numbers and ratings.

"Most people who charter a bus -- whether it's a college or a corporation or a church or a school -- aren't really charter bus experts," he said. "They really look for, 'I need a charter bus and what's the best price?'"

And they don't understand how the rules might limit what type of service a company can offer.

A college looking to save money might ask someone to drive its team several hours to a competition and then drive through the night to get home, partly to avoid paying for hotel rooms, he said. But a trip like that would push a driver beyond his allowed hours limit.

Checking up

Kelly EdwardsPaula Lavigne for ESPNWindsor goalie Kelly Edwards looks through a scrapbook she made remembering the bus crash. "It's not just paperwork," she said. "It's our safety."

Talk about scores, regulations and violations rarely trickles down to the student-athletes riding the buses. University of Hartford senior guard Jaret von Rosenberg usually catches a nap on long rides, such as the one he took to Burlington, Vt., for a game in early February.

"I actually was on a bus that got in a minor accident last year. We ran into a big semi carrying milk," he said. "We bumped sides together and had to pull over and see cops and stuff."

Rosenberg said he's not preoccupied with safety, but it does cross his mind when the bus is rolling down the highway on snow-covered winter roads.

"Parents are always calling, asking, making sure we get home OK," he said.

Wayne and Karen Stricklen are used to making those calls. Their daughter Shekinna is a freshman guard for the Tennessee women's basketball team. In January, when the Lady Vols traveled to a game in Fayetteville, Ark., the Stricklens, who live in central Arkansas, drove there to cheer her on.

When they heard that the team had been traveling around Fayetteville with a charter bus company that had a poor rating, they wanted action.

"They need to check more," Wayne Stricklen said. "Check these people more, especially when your child's life is in their hands when they're driving a school bus."

Tennessee is one of at least five colleges that have used University Bus Lines on their trips to Fayetteville, not knowing the company received a conditional rating in July.

Inspectors found one bus with an emergency-exit window bolted shut. It had been on the road for at least a year like that with the full knowledge of a company mechanic. The company also had lapses in running background and drug tests on drivers, and other errors in logbooks and maintenance records.

Owner Kevin Clark blamed the rating on his decision to buy what he says was a poorly run local company, Holiday Coach Lines, in August 2007. He inherited the company's errant recordkeeping and employees, including the mechanic, whom Clark has since let go.

Clark says he runs a model company now and has just purchased a fleet of new buses. He's confident University Bus Lines will get a clean bill of health on its next review. The problem is he doesn't know when U.S. Department of Transportation officials will return.

"They've done a nice job of raising the bar," he said. "It's just been a slow process."

Federal inspectors have been stepping up their enforcement because of the increase in the number of bus crashes. They hope to collect more information from on-site visits and roadside inspections to give passengers, including coaches and athletes, better and timelier information, said Hill, the former DOT administrator who is now a private safety consultant.

In the next few years, Hill also predicts buses will have seat belts, especially after so many people have been killed by being ejected during bus crashes and rollovers.

"We made some very strong commitments to members of Congress that we would take a much more aggressive approach to overseeing the bus industry," he said.

That might come as some comfort to Erin Roach, the goalie still struggling with the bus crash that killed her mother. Her Adrian College team travels with a Michigan company, Bianco Tours, with a good safety record. But those long rides still leave her unsettled.

"If I don't feel comfortable, we're going to stop. My coaches are good about that," she said. "Sometimes I do get scared."

When she gets on the bus she'll head to the back seat, put her earphones in and sit quietly. She might close her eyes, but she will never sleep.

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines."