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"The Year of the Motorcoach Professional" United Motorcoach Association Expo, Long Beach, California
Deborah A. P. Hersman
United Motorcoach Association Expo, Long Beach, California

Good morning, Long Beach, and good morning, United Motorcoach Association!

It is great to be in the company of so many industry leaders and share the stage with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Administrator Ferro who has done so much for motor carrier safety with her commitment to raise the bar for entry, her focus on safety standards, and her dedication to remove high-risk operators. Anne Ferro listens, cares about the success and the safety of motor carriers, and is a real professional.

Today, we get to kick off the year of the motorcoach professional and talk to you - motorcoach professionals - and, like Willie Nelson, I want to talk about how your industry is "on the road again."

Yes, Americans are on the road again - going places they've never been and seeing places they may never see again - and they are traveling in motorcoaches. Intercity bus travel has been described as the fastest-growing mode of transportation.

One of your members - the Buckingham Bus Company of Massachusetts - celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Many of you are part of a family business like Bill Allen of Amador Stage Lines, which marks its 160th anniversary this year.

Can you believe that longevity in today's world? A world where some marriages are measured in months?

Yet, Amador's evolution from a stage line carrying prospectors to the California gold country to today's company with a wide range of services just goes to show how adaptable and nimble you are.

Let's look at your industry. You contribute to our economy and to our quality of life in so many ways. In many ways, your industry, your buses, are iconic. They are images of America. Everywhere, across our country, you are on the road again - carrying presidential candidates, taking school groups on trips, carrying fans to the Super Bowl. How many of you had charters to Indianapolis for the big game?

I have been in DC for 20 years and in a few weeks, I'm not sure what we'll see more of in Washington - cherry blossoms or your motorcoaches lining the National Mall.

Each year, you transport more passengers than the U.S. airlines. And, like the airlines, you have a remarkable safety record. But, also like the airlines when something bad happens - like last year's motorcoach accident in New York City that killed 15 people - your industry gets intense scrutiny, major news coverage, and negative attention.

With accidents, it makes no difference if the company has been in business for one day or one hundred years. All the public sees is a motorcoach. These accidents reflect on all of you.

That's why, as Vic (Parra) has told me, safety isn't a part of your business, safety IS your business.

And, at the NTSB, safety is OUR only business. As an independent agency, the NTSB is charged with investigating accidents in all modes of transportation. Our charge is to find out what happened and make recommendations to prevent future accidents.

In the last decade we have seen something that transportation professionals thought was impossible: Years with zero commercial aviation fatalities.

Today, I want to provide the NTSB's perspective on how you can improve on your outstanding record and safely host even more travelers on the road again. And, I will challenge you to think about achieving zero fatalities in the coming year.

You may recall an accident that occurred one early morning. A bus going from New York City to Pittsburgh traveled off the right side of the roadway. It struck the back of a parked tractor-trailer. The crash killed the bus driver and six passengers.

The NTSB identified three safety issues in this accident: inadequate federal oversight of bus operators, bus crashworthiness issues, and operator fatigue.

That crash was in 1998. Since then, we've conducted 36 bus accident investigations. Again and again, just like in the movie Groundhog Day, we see the same thing, the same issues: fatigued drivers, poor occupant protection, and marginal operators that are only put out of service after a fatal accident.

Those three issues lead directly to the three elements essential for motorcoach safety: Good oversight, good equipment, and good operators.

First, good oversight is essential to ensure the safety of vehicles and drivers. Our investigations have regularly identified businesses that should not have been operating buses. In a 2008 Sherman, Texas, accident that killed 17 people, the bus operator had previously failed its compliance review. But, it applied as a new carrier - with a new name - and obtained another DOT operating number. The accident happened under the "reincarnated" carrier's new name before they had received operating authority.

In another 2008 Texas crash, in Victoria, the operator, unable to obtain insurance due to a previous accident, used another operator's authority. The accident happened under the borrowed operating authority.

And, yes, we know FMCSA is working hard to detect unscrupulous operators and prevent reincarnated carriers from reentering the marketplace. But, frankly, the barriers to entry are extremely low, the penalties aren't a deterrent, and the FMCSA is overburdened with about one investigator per 1,000 motor carriers.

Recognizing the challenges they are faced with, I applaud Administrator Ferro's commitment to removing high-risk operators - carriers that diminish the standards that you - motorcoach professionals - work so hard to maintain.

That takes us to the second essential element for safe operations: good equipment.

Let me tell you about my ride from LAX in a 2012 MCI motorcoach, owned and operated by Bee Line Transportation of Tucson, and driven - professionally - by Charles Griffith.

The bus was equipped with three-point restraints for passengers as well as a fire detection and suppression system, electronic stability control, automatic traction control, and tire-pressure monitoring system.

This model was also equipped with MCI and UMA executives! That must be part of the optional package. Thank you, all, for making this ride possible.

For decades, the NTSB has called on the NHTSA to develop standards to better protect passengers in accidents - particularly rollover accidents.

The good news is that you are asking for - and manufacturers are delivering new technology even without federal mandates. MCI, Prevost, Setra, and Van Hool have stepped up and voluntarily installed safety systems in their buses, like the technology on the J4500 I rode on yesterday. And, some even have adaptive cruise control that will slow the vehicle - if the driver does not - to prevent a collision.

While I am thrilled to see the new safety features, you - all the motorcoach professionals here this week - should closely examine the equipment in the exhibit hall. Manufacturers are taking steps to put safety features on new buses. It's up to you to take the next step and take full advantage of them.

The third, and final, element to be safely on the road again - is the most important. Good operators.

It's the theme of this conference. It's you. Motorcoach professionals.

People are the most important element in any safety equation. This was reconfirmed for me yesterday.

I have a CDL with a passenger endorsement, but the safest thing I can do for transportation is leave the driving to the professionals, like Charles Griffith, who was driving that 2012 MCI coach yesterday in L.A. traffic - safely.

Importantly, manufacturers must ensure that the driver's workload is reduced, not increased, by the technology.

We know that technology is a tool to improve safety. But, no matter how sophisticated, the technology is only as good as the performance of the operator. It is the operator's commitment to safety, the operator's understanding of the safety tools, the operator's safety culture - these make a safe operator.

And, that safety culture starts at the top. Last night, I talked with Tom Ready and Steve Brown, who talked about their companies and their commitment to safety. That reinforced for me that it is up to you, each one of you, to ensure the safety of millions of passengers who are relying on you to get them to their destination safely.

It is up to you to be safety leaders and address the safety issues. Are 14- or 15-hour days too long for your drivers? Are your mechanics trained on all of the new equipment on the bus? Do you have a robust policy on distraction? Do you accept overnight charters?

There's a Museum of Bus Transportation in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It boasts the nation's largest collection of buses. But more than that, the museum celebrates the role the bus industry has played in the mobility and progress of our country.

My question for you: Years from now, what will the museum display about the industry's commitment to safety in the 21st century?

What will your legacy be? Will you be the leaders that get to zero fatalities?

I challenge you: Bring more carriers into UMA. Elevate the standards for your association. Ensure that the public understands your industry and associates motorcoaches with professionalism.

I urge you to raise your standards even higher and make bus travel the safest form of transportation.

That can be your legacy: Achieving zero fatalities, the hallmark of a strong, safe, and professional industry.