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Posted at 05:35 PM ET, 05/31/2011

4 killed, more than 50 hurt in Va. bus crash; driver charged


(Courtesy Virginia State Police)

Update: 6:35 p.m.

BOWLING GREEN, Va. (AP) — The company that operates a bus that overturned on a Virginia highway, killing four, says this is the first serious accident involving one of its motor coaches.

But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued an out-of-service order for Sky Express on Tuesday “for violating multiple federal safety regulations.”

The order from FMCSA, a division of the Department of Transportation, prohibits the North Carolina-based company from providing interstate transportation services, the agency said.

“Safety is our number one priority,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “We will use every resource at our disposal to pursue and remove from our roads unsafe, reckless bus companies.”

Officials said they “found multiple violations in the areas of driver qualification requirements, drug and alcohol compliance, hours-of-service and vehicle maintenance.”

SkyExpress officials said Tuesday they would cooperate fully with the investigation.

More than 50 people were injured in the crash along Interstate 95 north of Richmond. That includes the driver who faces a reckless driving charge.

The company in a statement from its media liaison, Gail Parenteau, says the driver has never before been involved in an accident.

The company offers cheap fares. According to federal records, the company has been cited for 46 driver-fatique violation over the last two years and has been involved in several wrecks.

The Sky Express bus swerved off northbound I-95, hit an embankment and flipped about 30 miles north of Richmond. Fifty-four people were taken to area hospitals and were treated for minor to severe injuries.

The bus departed Greensboro, N.C., on Monday night and was headed to Chinatown in New York City with 59 people aboard, including 37-year-old driver Kin Yiu Cheng, of Flushing, N.Y., police said. He is being held in an area jail on $3,000 bond and the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, Charlotte, N.C.-based Sky Express Inc. buses have been involved in four crashes, with one injury or fatality — it didn't specify which — during the two-year period that ended May 20.

Its drivers have been cited for 17 unsafe-driving violations, including eight for speeding, since 2009. It received a 62.9 percent rating. That means it performed worse than nearly 63 percent of comparable transportation companies.

Three of Sky Express' 46 violations for fatigued driving were classified as serious. It ranked worse than 86 percent of similar companies in the fatigue category.

David Wong, a manager in the Sky Express office in Charlotte, declined to comment. The office of his attorney, Ruth Yang, referred calls to a media consultant Gail Parenteau. An email to Parenteau on Tuesday afternoon wasn't immediately returned.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said Sky Express's federal safety report is rife with warning signs of trouble. The report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration raises questions about tired drivers and driver fitness in particular, said the advocate group's general counsel, Henry Jasny.

"You can tell this is a problem carrier," he said of the company that runs 31 motor coaches with about 50 drivers.

Sky Express offers $30 bus trips between New York and 15 cities in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It also goes to Washington, D.C.

Tuesday's accident comes a few weeks after the FMCSA outlined new tour bus safety measures including making new vehicles have stronger roofs and windows. The Sky Express bus had no passenger seat belts, only for the driver.

The federal Department if Transportation also has proposed requiring buses to have seat belts and electronic on-board recorders to replace easily falsified paper records of driver hours. The proposals also would make it easier to revoke drivers' commercial licenses following violations.

In the area of driver fitness, federal records show that Sky Express has been cited for 24 violations since 2009, including 14 for using drivers who lack English-language skills. Its 99.7 percent rating ranks the company among the worst in that category.

"To drive any commercial vehicle in the United States, you have to have English proficiency," Jasny said. "You don't have to be fluent but you need to be able to communicate with passengers and law enforcement and understand signs on the highway."

The fleets of inexpensive buses plying the highways of the East Coast offer cheap fares, convenient routes and in some cases free wireless Internet. The industry is in the fifth year of a solid boom, thanks to the service that eschews terminals and thrives on low prices. But a string of fatal accidents also has prompted calls for tougher regulation.

In a March crash, a speeding bus returning to Chinatown from a Connecticut casino toppled off an elevated highway and hit a utility pole, peeling off the roof. Fifteen passengers were killed and 18 injured.

Federal authorities say nearly 2,800 spot safety checks of passenger buses across the country from March 28 through April 6 resulted in about 10 percent of the vehicles or drivers being taken off the road.

Updated: 12:09 p.m.

Virginia State Police say the left and center lanes of I-95 North have reopened after the crash.

Updated: 10:36 a.m.

A passenger bus that overturned Monday morning on I-95 North in Caroline County was traveling from North Carolina  to New York, Gov. Bob McDonnell said Monday morning.

Four people were killed and more than 50 people injured in the accident, which took place roughly 30 miles north of Richmond. McDonnell (R), who saw the aftermath of accident by helicopter, said I-95 will remain closed until about noon.

"The report I got at 9 was that it would be another couple of hours,’’ McDonnell said on his monthly call-in show on WTOP. “We would certainly hope by noon."

The commercial tour bus ran off the right side of the  road and overturned, winding up completely upside down.

Virginia state police were called to the scene shortly before 5 a.m. The  northbound lanes of I-95 remain blocked to allow teams to investigate the crash.  

Northbound traffic is being detoured at exit 98 in Hanover County, directed over  to Route 1 and back to I-95 North at exit 110 in Caroline County. The lanes will  remain closed through the morning rush.

McDonnell said it’s too soon to say whether there should be additional regulations on I-95.

“We don't know what happened with the accident,’’ he said. “We don't know anything about whether it was driver error, mechanical error whether someone forced them off the road. We just don't have that information. I'm not going to speculate on what else might be necessary."

Original Post:

A passenger bus overturned on I-95 North in Caroline County this morning, with four confirmed dead and multiple injuries, according to the Virginia State Police.

The fatal accident took place on I-95 North a quarter of a mile south of the exit for Carmel Church. The commercial tour bus ran off the right side of the road and overturned, winding up completely upside down.

The state police were called to the scene shortly before 5 a.m. The northbound lanes of I-95 remain blocked to allow teams to investigate the crash. Northbound traffic is being detoured at exit 98 in Hanover County, directed over to Route 1 and back to I-95 North at exit 110 in Caroline County. The lanes will remain closed through the morning rush.

(The bus was not a Greyhound, as some outlets reported this morning. The Virginia State Police confirmed it was not a Greyhound, but aren’t relesing the name of the bus company and its departure point or destination until family members have been notified.)

By Associated Press  |  05:35 PM ET, 05/31/2011

 
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