By Peter Galuszka

If there is ever an argument in favor of regulation in today’s anti-government political climate in Virginia, one needs look no farther than the interstate highways.

Buoyed by a wave of intercity bus deregulation about 30 years ago, new bus lines started up using older vehicles, no frills and often over-tired drivers. Many morphed into so-called “Chinatown” buses favored by college students and others on tight budgets that operated up and down the East Coast from Greensboro, Raleigh, Norfolk, Richmond, Baltimore and Washington hauling passengers to Chinatown on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Charging roundtrip rates often $30 or less, the “Chinatown” buses cost about one quarter what Greyhound charges and are far less expensive than Amtrak or airline service.

It was pure capitalism at work and it proved deadly. On May 31, 2011, a driver for Charlotte-based Sky Express was apparently so tired and so pressed by his hard-charging dispatcher that he literally fell asleep at the wheel. His bus flipped on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg killing four and injuring 50. Just two and a half months earlier, another fatigued driver carrying passengers from a Connecticut casino to New York’s Chinatown crashed in the Bronx, killing 15.

After a year-long probe, the U.S. Department of Transportation has shut down 26 business entities in five states associated with the “Chinatown” bus system. The carriers, federal regulators claim, racked up numerous safety violations, including using drivers without commercial licenses, requiring them to drive excessive hours and not maintaining equipment. Once challenged, the firms “evaded enforcement by ‘reincarnating’ into other forms, according to DOT.

In another macabre example of unfettered capitalism at work, operators of the bus lines simply shut one down when it got in trouble, acquired a new corporate name and painted it on the side of the bus. Off it went.

The story shows something else besides reprehensible safety and the lack of oversight. There is a strong demand in the Washington area and the Mid-Atlantic region for reliable, inexpensive intercity bus service. Airline regulation from the 1970s ended up giving big city passengers savings and convenience at the expense of people from less populated areas. While showing signs of some growth, Amtrak is limited by budget problems. High speed rail plans are going slowly or nowhere at all.

It seems certain that some low-cost bus operation will replace the Chinatown liveries. The “free market” magic somehow involved has been touted by others on this blog. The much larger question is, will the feds keep watch on safety?

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  1. larryg Avatar

    yet another plea for the nanny state, eh?


  2. larryg Avatar

    the neo libertarians would tell you to pays your money and makes your choices.

    If a bus company has cheap fares but a “sketchy” reputation – it’s not the govt’s role to “protect” you.

    companies with bad reputations will eventually go broke and companies with good reputations will prosper.

    we don’t need no stinkin govmint…

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Nobody of sound mind has ever claimed that all regulation should be abolished.

    The prohibition against murder is a form of regulation.

    The question was, is and always will be the extent to which the government should regulate.

    The question of regulation in Virginia was best analyzed by a column in the hibernating Virginia Tomorrow blog written by Barnie Day. The erudite and articulate Mr. Day entitled his blog, “Contemplating Suicide and Can’t Make Up Your Mind: Unload the Gun Before Reading This. Beyond possessing an obvious sense of humor, Mr Day is also known to possess a center – left political philosophy which included staunch opposition to Bob McDonnell as governor.

    Here is the column:

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Dear Barnie Day:

    Please start blogging again! This kind of writing is sorely missed:

    “How many pages of regulations do you think it takes to govern a “business-friendly” state like Virginia? A thousand? Two thousand? Three? Four?

    Close to five.

    Nearly five thousand pages.

    (I checked the Bible this morning. That gang of regulators covers a lot of ground. Only took them 1140 pages.) “.

  5. Peter is chasing a will o’ the whisp, putting the advocates of “unfettered” capitalism in their places. Except… outside of Ron Paul rallies, there aren’t any advocates of unfettered capitalism. Nearly everyone supports government regulation to protect the public health and safety, at least in concept. (Clearly, as DJRippert points out, there is such a thing as regulatory overreach.)

    But making sure that inter-city bus drivers are pumping themselves up with No-Doze before getting behind the wheel seems like a perfectly legitimate regulation.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Glad to See bacon agrees safety is important and should be regulated

    1. The tricky part is deciding *how much* regulation. And that requires a rational assessment of costs and benefits. Unfortunately, that assessment often gets polluted by ideology and self interest, so the answers aren’t always clear cut. But at least in concept, health and safety are appropriate goals of regulation.

  7. larryg Avatar

    well you can ask the four families who lost loved ones in that bus wreck what kind of regulation they’d like to see……

    that’s how a lot of regulation actually comes about… including really bad regulation.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Thanks LarryG,
    I think a little moral clarity is a good idea here. And Barney Day’s witticisms about regulation are really out of place when you are talking about a few dozen dead bus riders and their relatives. Funny, but when I blogged about the F-burg crash a year ago, You Know Who rang in with his own post about how this all a great free market opportunity.
    Some days I wonder why I bother with this.

  9. larryg Avatar

    don’t wonder… just DO! we need the counter view! Bacon has got himself on a slippery slope with that libertarian thing…!!!

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