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March 17. 2013 12:58AM

NH State police hope to ramp up bus inspections

Recognizing people might have concerns over recent bus crashes in other states, New Hampshire State Police hope to increase inspections of passenger buses by 20 percent this year.

"It's important we ensure these buses are safe," said Lt. John Begin, who heads the motor carrier enforcement unit for state police. "Like any field, there's some bad apples in the group. Our job is to identify them and get them to comply."

Last year, there were 16 crashes involving buses in New Hampshire, including one that led to a fatality. A 70-year-old woman in a car died in Concord, and investigators found her at fault, Begin said. In 2010 and 2011, there were 46 bus crashes each year with one fatality in 2011.

"Typically, what we see is that it is a passenger vehicle at fault," Begin said. "Bus transportation is an extremely safe and economical way of transportation."

The accident crash figures include school buses picking up children at home and taking them to school. State police bus inspections include school buses only when they are used for such activities as field trips and carrying athletic teams, Begin said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, people were more than twice as likely to get killed riding in a passenger car than riding on a bus in 2010. But bus riders were 50 percent more likely to get injured than car travelers. The rates were based on a rate of 100 million vehicle miles of travel.

Ken Hunter, vice president of Concord Coach Lines, said he plans to tout his company's safety record, acknowledging news reports about crashes or safety violations involving other bus companies are "a blemish on the industry."

"We're proud of our safety record," Hunter said. "I think it's one of the things we're going to start advertising and talking more about in advertising our safety record."

By state and federal law, buses have to be checked once a year by an official state inspection station or someone authorized to do so, Begin said. School buses are required to be inspected twice a year.

State police conduct additional inspections at various places, such as at a bus terminal or even in the parking lots of sports stadiums.

After a series of fatal bus crashes in other states in recent years, state police here began conducting more bus inspections. The number of inspections more than doubled, from 110 in 2010 to 251 last year.

Begin said he hopes that number to top 300 this year. "Our whole push to ramp this up each year to do progressively more and more," he said.

Begin said inspection figures don't break down how many buses were put out of service until items were fixed. During the 251 inspections, 113 violations were found, including 32 that occurred on buses ordered out of service until improvements get made. Excluding a catch-all category of all-other items, brakes topped the list of violations.

Drivers also are required to be medically certified every two years but can be compelled to be certified more often if health issues develop or be banned from driving.

The riding public can use the Internet to check the safety records of bus companies before they charter or board them.

"We are hopeful consumers will consider that when choosing a bus company, and they should not let price be the sole determination in what bus company they choose to travel with," said Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which has jurisdiction.

The motor carrier safety administration this month shut down Boston-based Fung Wah Bus Transportation over safety issues. And last month, a bus carrying a Maine college basketball team crashed just over the border in Massachusetts after the driver reportedly experienced a medical problem.

The motor carrier administration also has developed a SaferBus mobile application to provide access to important safety information that you can check before deciding on riding or chartering a bus.

But some bus company owners say the online inspection records can appear misleading.

Thomas Charters in Keene has six instances of speeding buses over a two-year period, according to inspection records listed on the federal motor carrier website. The violations spanned from December 2011 to Jan. 5, 2013.

Ed Thomas, the company's owner, said he is challenging the speeding violations because he said all had occurred in Springfield, Mass, in an area that fluctuates between 45 and 65 mph.

"Springfield is like a speeding trap," he said.

As for people looking at his company's record, Thomas said: "It just looks badly upon us, and it's not true."

Hunter, with Concord Coach Lines, said his approximately 40 buses covered more than 4 million miles over the past year.

Records for the past two years showed 10 violations for vehicle maintenance, but no serious ones discovered, according to inspection records.

Hunter said a violation for brakes was because an inspector found fluid on a brake for a third axle that involved a small amount of the bus's overall braking capacity. "Nothing was in danger," he said.

Other violations including a handicap door needing a latch adjusted, and "inoperative required lamps," which involved a light that worked when the bus left that morning but burned out that day.

"When you run as many vehicles as we do, you can see nothing flagrant there," Hunter said.

Geoffrey Doughty, director of safety and loss control with the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, said trucks and buses have a daily pre-trip and post-trip inspection they are required to go through and are monitored.

"As soon as there is a high-profile incident, usually there is a response," he said.

"I will tell you right now the level of bus inspection and truck inspection is of a very high order," Doughty said. "The trucking industry and bus industry are more regulated than the citizen is for his vehicle."

mcousineau@unionleader.com

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