The Bronx Bus crash cast a grim light on this industry of overnight casino buses. We wanted to know how safe they are, who's driving, and who's riding, so we bought a ticket.
It’s 9 p.m. Wednesday in Chinatown. Most people are home unwinding after dinner, except for the the dozens of gamblers boarding a white, unmarked bus at the intersection of Chinatown’s Bowery and Division Street.
The motor coach is a bargain, mainly because Foxwoods Casino subsidizes the cost of tickets. The 30 or so passengers pay just $8 round-trip and when they arrive to the betting tables, they are each handed a $15 meal ticket and a voucher worth $45 in casino matching funds.
The matching funds allow a gambler to turn a $25 bet into a $50 bet, explained a groggy passenger who woke up as the casino bus pulled into the Foxwoods parking lot.
The bus owner, a company called Sky Express, Inc., has a troubled inspection history. According to records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Sky Express performed worse than 98 percent of all passenger bus companies in the “unfit driver” category, which includes employing drivers who don’t have commercial licenses or who don’t speak English.
Additionally, the North Carolina-based company scored worse than 73 percent of all bus companies in the “unsafe driving” category, which includes speeding and lane change violations.
Sky Express also ranked worse than 86 percent of all passenger bus companies in the “fatigued driver” category. Most violations involving fatigue stem from improper or fraudulent keeping of driving logs.
“I think a 70, 80 or 90 percent record of fatigued drivers is a signal that the company should not be transporting people from state to state,” said James Vacca, who chairs the New York City Council transportation committee.
Despite frustration with the bus companies, city and state lawmakers have little power to reign in operators with poor inspection histories because the federal government has constitutional authority over interstate commerce.
Although Sky Express is on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration “high priority investigation list,” the regulator has not deemed the company an imminent hazard, which would result in buses being taken off the roads.
NBC New York left several messages with Sky Express, seeking an explanation for the company’s poor inspection history. A woman who called back on behalf of the bus operator insisted a Department of Transportation inspector spent four days monitoring the firm and declared it safe.
“We are OK right now,” said Jenny Han, who identified herself as a Sky Express secretary.
“For two years we had poor scores but right now we are OK. The DOT stayed with the owner for four days and we are OK now.”
By 3:30 a.m., casino bus customers were busy making their last bets at Foxwoods. Buses returning to Flushing and Chinatown leave at 4:15 and 4:30 a.m..
Margaret, an unemployed health aide, says she makes the overnight gambling trip up to three times a week. She admits she probably spends too much time at the casino.
“You pick your poison. I don’t drink or go to bars. I don’t drink, so you have to have an outlet and this is mine.”
Most customers sleep on the three-hour ride back to New York City. Margaret says she rests, but keeps one eye open, because she once witnessed her bus diver doze off behind the wheel.
“I saw the driver. He took a dive like that,” Margaret said, bobbing her head up and down. “I told him he was getting ready to fall asleep.”
Before boarding for the sleepy trip home, Margaret admitted the casino bus crash that killed fifteen passengers in the Bronx was on her mind. She said, though, the deadly accident is not enough to keep her from returning to the slot machines.
“Life is a gamble on the whole and here I am, trying to make $2. That’s why I’m here.”