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Journalists repeatedly bring up and dramatize these accidents, which occurred over seven years ago, conjuring headlines like "Penny-Pinching Peril," or "We're a Lot Safer with Fung Wah Buses Off the Road." Fung Wah was a "rattletrap operation" that was "known for carrying shallow pocketed passengers," according to David Wescott writing in Bloomberg Businessweek. According to Adam Martin of New York—the magazine has published several anti-Fung Wah stories over the years—this "wacky-yet-lovable institution" was "even more dangerous than we already knew."
A recent item in College Humor titled "An Important Safety Message from Fung Wah Buses" mimics a company manager telling drivers in broken English that if a bus catches fire, "pull over at either the first sight of flames or the first smell of burning flesh, whichever comes later."
Imagine the press reaction if Fung Wah, not Greyhound, had made news for running a roach-infested bus. Or if it had been a Fung Wah bus, not a Greyhound, aboard which a man stabbed, beheaded, and consumed portions of his seatmate?
Fung Wah's drivers have a relatively good safety record, with four violations in the past two years.[*] Three out of four of those violations had little bearing on passenger safety. In one case, a driver was caught with an improperly formatted doctor's certificate testifying to his good health. Two drivers were cited for sub-par English language skills.
The remaining infraction is serious, though not to the degree that the official record reflects. On August 14, 2012, a Fung Wah driver was pulled over for speeding. The officer then issued the driver a citation for operating a bus without having been issued a commercial driver's license. According to information obtained from the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles, the officer actually caught the (licensed) Fung Wah driver not wearing his glasses and then mistakenly gave him the wrong type of citation. Unlicensed driving is considered is a far more serious offence by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In the past two years, Greyhound drivers have been cited twice for operating a bus without having been issued a commercial vehicle license.
Fung Wah’s real troubles began in February, when safety inspectors in Boston found multiple cracks in the frames of its buses during a series of inspections. “Not trivial stuff,” said Ann Berwick, chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which oversaw the inspections.
But these frame cracks were, for the most part, “trivial stuff.” The inspectors who examined Fung Wah’s fleet, Steve Boleyn and Dyann Prouty, placed 11 Fung Wah buses out of service because of frame cracks. What the two inspectors didn’t seem to know is that all active tour buses have frame cracks. Because tour bus bodies are fabricated in one large metal piece, these cracks don’t threaten the structural integrity of the vehicles. School buses, on the other hand, have assembled frames, so cracks need to be treated more seriously. Boleyn and Prouty seemed to be unaware of that distinction. (Boleyn and Prouty, through a DPU spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this article.)
"Most frame cracks have no safety impact," says bus engineer Christopher Ferrone. "People that do a very good job of running their buses are getting wrongly impounded for frame cracks," he says. (Ferrone has no direct knowledge of Fung Wah's fleet.) He says that some cracks are beneficial because they relieve stress on the vehicle. Others should be "monitored or repaired," but generally are of "no safety consequence."
Bus safety experts have long been concerned that field inspectors overreact to frame cracks by taking vehicles out of service; while it's too late for Fung Wah, the closing of a major company because of frame cracks seems to have finally prodded them to take action.
Lieutenant Donald Bridge, Jr., is head of the Passenger Carrier Committee of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which determines safety inspection criteria for commercial vehicles in all 50 states. One month after Fung Wah was shut down, Bridge says his committee began the process of rewriting the guidelines for field inspectors with the goal of "alleviating some of the misdiagnosed violations" stemming from frame cracks. (Bridge, who works closely with federal and state regulators, characterized bus inspectors overall as "awesome," and denied that it was Fung Wah’s closure that directly led his committee to rewrite the guidelines.)
Cracks in some parts of a tour bus frame require more attention than in others. The cracks Boleyn and Prouty discovered in the drive axle area of Fung Wah’s buses had been repaired, though not to their satisfaction. But the two inspectors may not be the best judges of what constitutes an adequate repair.
In Boleyn’s vehicle examination reports, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and have posted here, he repeatedly claims that the repairs were not appropriate according to a work procedure issued by the bus manufacturer Van Hool.
There's strong evidence that Boleyn was being overly literal in interpreting that document. The work procedure Boleyn consulted, WP449, was issued in April 2007. In April 2013, just one month after Boleyn used WP449 to take much of Fung Wah’s fleet out of service, the procedure was revised and made less stringent—likely a reaction to his misreading of the 2007 document. (A representative with ABC Companies, which is the North American distributor for Van Hool buses, declined to comment.)
Beyond the claim that Fung Wah's buses were in disrepair, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s shutdown order lists several internal procedures Fung Wah allegedly failed to comply with, such as failing to monitor their drivers’ work schedules and their drug and alcohol testing. The rules governing internal procedures have become so stringent in recent years, an aggressive regulator might find similar fault with any bus company. The shutdown recites a series of offences, but lacks any specifics.