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Passenger buses rarely inspected at roadside in Va.

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Roadside inspection of passenger motor coaches in Virginia is never random and rarely done at the roadside.

Instead, Virginia law enforcement usually inspects big passenger buses before a trip or at its end, pulling them over during a trip only for moving violations or apparent safety concerns.

In Wednesday's inspection of an Eastern Coach bus on Interstate 95, a Virginia state trooper stopped the bus on a speeding violation.

"Any motor trooper can initiate the roadside inspection," said 1st Sgt. Ted E. Jones, director of the safety division in the State Police Motor Carrier Unit.

What they cannot do under federal law is order a passenger bus into a roadside weigh station for a random inspection without probable cause of a safety concern. Some regulators, lawmakers and safety advocates want to restore authority to inspect motor coaches during their trips.

In Virginia, state police rarely used that power when they had it, prior to passage of a federal restriction in 2005.

"Before anybody said you can't do it, Virginia did not do it," said Stephen Story, president of James River Bus Lines Inc. in Richmond. "Virginia has always been reasonable in its approach to bus inspections."

The reason is that buses, unlike tractor-trailers, carry passengers who don't like their trips interrupted and delayed.

"With a loaded commercial passenger carrier, an inspection would take time," Jones said. "It garnered a good deal of complaints from consumers."

Jones has 62 troopers to conduct all inspections for all types of carriers in Virginia. In the federal fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, the state had conducted 125 roadside bus inspections through May 20.

Almost all of those inspections were done at the origin or destination of a bus's journey. Only three were done for traffic enforcement.

For example, Story said his company's buses usually are inspected during a layover at their destination, such as the Potomac Mills shopping mall off I-95 in Northern Virginia.

Virginia performed 323 roadside bus inspections the previous fiscal year and 361 in fiscal 2009.

The state also plays a support role in compliance reviews that federal regulators prompt for passenger carrier operations. "It looks at the entire operation," Jones said.

The reviews are initiated and often conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, he said.

Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, has called for states to do more of those kinds of inspections, encompassing a carrier's facilities and books, as well as vehicles and drivers.

In testimony to a congressional committee last week, Pantuso estimated that less than a dozen states have really strong programs for compliance reviews. Virginia, with three reviews this fiscal year, isn't one of them.

"I think they could do more," Pantuso said.

Story supports more resources for increased facility inspections and aggressive enforcement of traffic laws for passenger buses.

"That's what we're missing," he said.

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