By Diana Filkins, Albany Government Law Review Class of 2011
On Saturday, March 12, a bus returning from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut flipped on its side on a busy highway in the Bronx. It continued to slide until it hit a metal traffic pole, at which point the top of the bus was severed. Fifteen people were killed while dozens of others were injured. The driver told authorities that he had to swerve after being hit by another vehicle, yet other passengers report that the driver had already swerved several times for no reason and had been driving erratically. Authorities investigated how much sleep the driver had the night before. In addition, the driver had been convicted of manslaughter and grand larceny in the past, as well as receiving a traffic ticket for driving without a license in 1995. Due to his traffic violations, his license was suspended and he should not have been driving the bus.
On Monday, March 21, another bus, also originating in Chinatown in New York City, crashed in Philadelphia. The driver, who was not wearing his seat belt, and one passenger were killed while forty-one others were injured. There are reports that a tire on the bus blew out, but the cause of the crash has not yet been determined.
In light of these tragedies, New York State is scrutinizing compliance checks with bus drivers by engaging in “spot checks” and other unannounced inspections of companies while Senator Chuck Schumer is calling for an audit of all “tour bus operators” in New York. The Cuomo administration states that it has already found violations and has halted the operation of several buses and drivers. However, even assuming that the drivers and buses were up to code and compliant with regulations, are New York’s laws regarding commercial licenses strict enough?
In New York, bus drivers must have a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), either category A, B or C. Furthermore, the license must specifically have the “Passenger” endorsement in order for the driver to operate a bus carrying fifteen or more passengers, excluding himself. It is federally mandated that each state establish minimum standards in order to receive a CDL. In New York, a candidate for a CDL must be a resident of the state and must be at least twenty-one years old in order to engage in interstate commerce, as is the issue here since the bus was driving from New York to Connecticut. The applicant must be able to converse in English, which includes the ability to read and understand road signs. Next, the applicant must be able to pass a road test as well as receive a medical certificate indicating that he or she is physically qualified to operate the vehicle. Physical fitness includes a range of categories including that there is no loss of limbs or impairment of dexterity in the hands, no current diagnosis of myocardial infarction or congestive cardiac failure, no history of respiratory dysfunction or high blood pressure that would impact the driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle and no history of mental illness that would impair the driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle.
A candidate must submit an application for employment which lists, among other things, the extent of the applicant’s experience with the operations of motor vehicles and any and all accidents that he has been in, in the past three years, as well as a statement explaining the revocation or suspension, if any, of his license at any time in his past. The employer himself must also undertake an independent investigation into the candidate. The employer must determine that the candidate has a valid license, must make an effort to obtain copies of the applicant’s driving records from the authorities and must make a good faith attempt to contact any employers for which the candidate drove vehicles over the past three years. Furthermore, after hiring a driver, the company must obtain the driving records for the driver at least once every twelve months to ensure that the driver still meets the minimum requirements in order to operate the commercial vehicle.
Just as with passenger vehicles, a driver may not operate a commercial vehicle when his license has been suspended, revoked or withdrawn. Furthermore, if a driver is convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol while he is on duty, he is disqualified from driving a commercial vehicle for one year for his first offense.  If, within three years, the driver is again convicted for a similar crime, he will be disqualified for an additional three years.
If a driver has lost his license and is caught operating the motor vehicle, he will receive an additional disqualification between ninety days and one year for his first offense. A second and third offense will subject him to disqualification for no more than five years. Furthermore, if a driver is convicted of driving while he has lost his commercial license, both he and his employer can be subject to civil fines. The fine for the driver must be at least $2,500 for a first offense while the employer must be fined at least $2,750 and no more than $25,000.
A recent amendment to the law has added that if a driver is caught texting while driving, twice, he will be disqualified from driving a commercial vehicle for ninety days. There is no specific punishment upon the first instance of texting while driving.
A great deal of responsibility is placed in the hands of the employer to verify that the applicant supplying them with correct information and to maintain a continuing review of the driver’s performance. As recent history has demonstrated, employers have not been as diligent as they should be in this regard. Even the possibility of a fine does not seen as effective as hoped. It is clear that more needs to be done to ensure that employers are complying with regulations. Stronger punishments and fines would be an important step toward gaining greater compliance.
Furthermore, the disqualification periods for offenses also seems minimal. If a driver is convicted of driving under the influence while on duty, a one year suspension of his commercial license seems to be a small price to pay. A much longer suspension period would not only be more effective in terms of deterrence but would also give far more protection to the public consumer. Driving under the influence is a dangerous offense and a one year disqualification, without more, does not give enough protection to both bus passengers and other drivers on the road.
 Lisa Holewa, Passengers Tell of Horror in Fatal Bus Crash, AOLNews, Mar. 12, 2011, available at http://www.aolnews.com/2011/03/12/new-york-city-casino-tour-bus-crash/.
 Id.; Lisa Lam, NY Police Crack Down on Discount Buses; Poor Safety Records Cited, AOLNews, Mar. 16, 2011, available at http://www.aolnews.com/2011/03/16/new-york-police-crack-down-on-discount-buses-poor-safety-record/?icid=sphere_aolnews2.
 Driver’s Account Probed, Times Union, Mar. 13, 2011, available at http://www.timesunion.com/default/article/Driver-s-account-probed-1114986.php.
 Lam, supra note 3.
 Jonathan Allen, New York Crash Probe Focusing on How Bus Driver Got License, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/15/us-bus-crash-idUSTRE72E8IJ20110315?pageNumber=2.
 Lam, supra note 3.
 The Associated Press, Schumer Seeks Audit of All NY Tour Bus Licenses, The Seattle Times, Mar. 20, 2011, available at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2014549004_apustourbusaccidentschumer.html?syndication=rss.
 NYS Commercial Driver’s Manual, Figure 1.1, available at http://www.nydmv.state.ny.us/broch/cdl/cdl10sec01.pdf.
 49 C.F.R. § 391.11(b)(2) (2010).
 49 C.F.R. § 391.23.
 49 C.F.R. § 391.25 (2009).
 49 C.F.R. § 301.15 (2010).
 U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Commercial Driver’s License Program, http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/registration-licensing/cdl/cdl.htm.