Jefferson County bus crash 6 months later

Jefferson County bus crash 6 months later: What are the regulations?

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It's just been over six months since a deadly church bus crash on Interstate 40 in Jefferson County that killed eight people and injured 14. It's just been over six months since a deadly church bus crash on Interstate 40 in Jefferson County that killed eight people and injured 14.
While private carriers like church buses are regulated, there's a push for all motor coaches on the roads to be regulated equally. While private carriers like church buses are regulated, there's a push for all motor coaches on the roads to be regulated equally.
Before one of Gentry's drivers leaves for a trip, a pre-trip check of the bus is conducted. Before one of Gentry's drivers leaves for a trip, a pre-trip check of the bus is conducted.

By STEPHANIE BEECKEN
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - It's just been over six months since a deadly church bus crash on Interstate 40 in Jefferson County that killed eight people and injured 14.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol is still investigating the cause of that crash. Officials say the final report will be released any day now.

According to THP, the bus was carrying members of Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C.

The bus was in violation of federal law. A private passenger bus that carries more than 16 passengers over state lines is required to have a U.S. DOT number and follow certain rules and regulations.

According to THP, the bus did not have a DOT number, which means there's no way to keep track of the bus or check if it was inspected or driven by a person with a commercial driver's license.

In a 6 News investigation, it was revealed Front Street Baptist Church received a DOT number on December 18, 2013, just over two months after the deadly crash.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, safety officials visited Front Street Baptist Church on January 20, 2014. During the investigation, the church was cited for "failing to implement an alcohol and/or controlled substance testing program."

While private carriers like church buses are regulated, there's a push for all motor coaches on the roads to be regulated equally.

Bill Gentry is the owner of Gentry Trailways, which provides motor coach charter services.

Before one of Gentry's drivers leaves for a trip, a pre-trip check of the bus is conducted.

"I'm checking the pressure on the tires. I'm checking the tread depths to make sure I've got plenty of tread depth," said Gentry.

Gentry says records of both pre- and post-trip inspections must be maintained to meet federal requirements set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

"There's just a tremendous amount of things that we have to do as a commercial carrier. We have to have safety programs. We have to have disciplinary programs. We have to have driver training," said Gentry. 

While both private passenger and commercial motor coaches must have a DOT number, Gentry says commercial carriers are under more scrutiny to get their DOT number.

"We have to keep records of applications as long as the employees have been here," said Gentry.

Motor coach guidelines are put in place by the federal government, but local agencies like the Tennessee Highway Patrol enforce those laws. 

Sgt. Randall Martin says THP can randomly inspect a bus at a destination or pull the motor coach over to inspect if there's been a traffic violation.

"As far as the other motor traffic out there, just know we are doing everything in our means to make sure these vehicles are safe and that these roads are safe to be on," said Martin.

According to THP, to be in compliance with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, those who have their commercial driver's license are limited to the amount of hours they are on the road and must be tested for drugs and alcohol.

Motor coaches are also inspected each year, and those records must be kept by the bus owner. Additionally, commercial carriers are required to keep maintenance records and information on employees.

"Their maintenance records have to be kept on file for review. All of their hours of service, their insurance requirements, [and] drug and alcohol testing have to be kept on file in their daily vehicle inspection reports," said Martin.

For the safety of all passengers and motorists, Gentry wants the same federal standards for all motor coaches.

"My hope is that they will be treated just like we are, that they will be scrutinized and have to go through the same processes that we have to go through," said Gentry.

Dan Ronan with the American Bus Association says the organization wants all motor coaches to be regulated the same, regardless of who owns the carrier or if the motor coach stays inside the state or travels between states.

"You're still carrying on the bus potentially 50 to 55 passengers. There should be no difference in terms of the regulations and the requirements," said Ronan.

Ronan says there is also a troubling difference in enforcement from state to state.

"There are some states where it's known in the industry that those states may be more stringent they may be tougher in terms of the enforcement than other states and we believe there should be a consistency from state to state," said Ronan.

Sgt. Martin says it's difficult to regulate bus safety without a DOT number.

"If people don't do that, there's no way of tracking that company. There's no way of tracking that organization that are engaging in those activities until you're stopped or an inspection or until unfortunately a crash occurs and investigators show up and find out through the investigation," said Martin.

Gentry believes, all too often, churches have a motor coach but aren't registered with the Department of Transportation. He believes are not trying to skirt the law, but they simply don't know the rules.

"If a church buys a coach and they operate that coach, really, nobody is going to know until someone calls the DOT and says, ‘Hey, you need to go check this coach. I don't think it's safe,'" said Gentry.

If a church or business is found to be in violation, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can cite them and impose fines.

Sgt. Martin says if a motor coach causes an accident and is found to be in violation of federal law, the bus owner or driver may end up in court.

Motor coach crashes may be rare, but when they occur, Martin says they are often devastating given the number of passengers on board.

THP suggests people who ride on motor coaches to check the FMCSA website and put in the company's name to see if the bus has a DOT number and has had any violations. Troopers also want anyone who owns a motor coach to go to the website to check regulations.

Other organizations are pushing for changes in the federal laws. According to Peter Pantuso, CEO of the American Bus Association, Congress passed a highway bill in 2012. He says the Department of Transportation is also considering new regulations for manufacturers, requiring new carriers and buses to be equipped with additional safety features.

"Things like stability control, for example, to make sure the bus doesn't tip going around corners," said Pantuso. "Fire suppression system in case you would get, for some reason, a fire in the engine compartment."

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