Trouble On the Highway And Parked In Chinatown

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Best known for their bargain prices, interstate buses run by Chinese companies have attracted travelers in droves, and helped many Chinese immigrants who can’t communicate in English to travel to far-flung parts of the country. But a recent fatal accident involving a New York-bound bus has prompted new calls for the bus industry to step up safety measures.

New York City is the largest hub for these Chinese-run charter buses. The immigrant transportation industry started as an alternative and more affordable means to shuttle Chinese workers to Chinese restaurants in different locations. As the Chinese bus routes expanded rapidly along the East coast and Midwest over the years, commuters including students, artists, budget travelers and immigrants nationwide also caught the cheap fare trend. Currently the Chinese buses travel from New York City to Albany, Boston, Chicago, Providence, Michigan, Washington, D.C. and even as far as Florida for as little as $12 to $20 one way.

Li Xueqin, a waitress at a Chinese restaurant in Ohio, didn’t think such a bus ride would leave her lying on a rain-washed highway at 3:30 am on May 20. With a broken arm, the pregnant woman struggled to crawl to safety after the charter bus she boarded swerved off Interstate 80 in rural Clearfield County, Pa. She escaped death, but saw another passenger, an injured man lying on the slippery road and unable to move, almost immediately run over by an oncoming vehicle.

One of the most serious traffic accidents of the so-called “Chinatown buses” to date, the bus crash killed two people and injured 32. The bus was carrying a full load of
Chinese restaurant workers and travelers from Ohio and Philadelphia to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Sound asleep and wearing no seatbelts, the men and women were thrown out of the vehicle and their luggage was strewn over the highway.

With damage ranging from limb fractures to serious brain injuries, the commuters recently filed lawsuits in New York City and Philadelphia to seek compensation.

Representing 11 injured passengers and the two death cases, New York attorneys Allan Tai and David Sobiloff are suing Pennsylvania-registered OK Travel Bus Inc., bus driver Lin Chen and ticket seller Five Star Travel in lower Manhattan. The case was filed at the New York County Supreme Court, since Tai thought New York jurors would be more sympathetic to the plight of immigrant workers.

According to Tai, the Philadelphia police report says the accident was caused by driver fatigue and speeding. He said a truck driver at the scene testified that the New York-bound bus was traveling at 80 to 90 miles per hour. The left brake was found rusty, Tai added, and he plans to take Van Hool, the bus manufacturer, and ABC Companies, which rented the bus to OK Travel Bus to court.

Meanwhile, New York attorney John S. Yong, who represents eight passengers, filed a lawsuit at the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania last Monday to seek compensation for their medical bills. Yong sued the OK Travel Bus Inc. and the bus driver, and he is investigating whether the company is liable for the non-provision of seat belts and faulty parts of the vehicle.

Yong filed the lawsuit in Pennsylvania and believes it benefits his clients since it was where the accident and investigative work took place, and Pennsylvania law has no pain and suffering limit. Three clients of his appeared at a press conference in Chinatown last week. One woman fractured her right shoulder and twisted her neck, one man broke his shoulder bones, and another man suffered severe headache and neck pain after waking up from a seven-hour coma at a hospital in Altoona, Pa. All of them had difficulty speaking, but they said since they had no health insurance, they were discharged from the hospital early. They hope the lawsuit will help pay for the medical care they will need in the near future.

“Many clients of mine are not able to work due to their severe injuries and they have to go through many surgeries and therapies. These are innocent people who woke up on the highway in the middle of the night and found their American dreams shattered,” Yong said.

Steven Wong, chairman of the United Chinese Association of Eastern USA, located in Manhattan’s Chinatown, assisted the injured passengers and says the Chinese bus industry needs to beef up its safety measures. “Each bus should have a log book to keep all their trip records, and the drivers need to have service stop breaks,” Wong said.

Wong says there are an estimated 40 charter bus companies operating out of Chinatown and competition between them is often cutthroat. Chinatown currently has no designated parking spot for any buses, and the NYPD 5th Precinct has stepped up measures to ticket illegally parked vehicles and temporarily close streets to chase away buses crowded around Forsyth Street, where many buses double- and triple-park while dropping off and picking up passengers. Although bus operators suggested an alternate parking spot on Madison Street, the police are not satisfied, and say that if the Chinatown bus industry can’t fix the overcrowding and parking problem by late June, all buses will have to leave Chinatown.

Wong said the parking problem is related to the safety problem, because the time drivers spend cruising around Chinatown streets picking up passengers leads to pressure to rush and finish trips quickly, and many have eliminated service stop breaks even for long-haul routes.

“It’s a vicious cycle. With more police crackdowns, many bus company owners are operating under the mindset ‘there’s no tomorrow,'” because police may end their business any time, “and they try to make more money while they can. And some of them put the safety concern aside,” Wong said.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, OK Travel Bus Inc. received a “satisfactory” rating in a May 1 compliance review. Attorney Yong, however, said the bus in the May 20 accident was involved in two other accidents in New Jersey in 2005 and 2006.

OK Travel Bus Inc. is registered under the address of King Wok, a Chinese and Japanese restaurant, at 13631 Pilmont Avenue in Philadelphia. Many Chinese interstate buses have offices and ticket sales locations in Manhattan, but they are registered outside New York, so they can enjoy lower insurance costs. Wong said the registration location is not an issue, as long as the bus companies are in compliance with federal regulations and have insurance coverage.

It doesn’t matter whether a bus company is operating “behind a Chinese restaurant” or has a grand office in a Manhattan skyscraper, he said. “They are still accountable for anything that happens. Safety has to be the number one priority. Bus companies have to prevent the accidents from happening, instead of waiting for the insurance company to take care of the mess afterwards.”

Low costs don’t necessarily mean low conscience, some say. City Councilmember John Liu, chairperson of Council’s transportation committee, said there is no pattern showing charter buses run by the Chinese companies are more accident-prone than those run by big national bus companies. He warned that the public should not stereotype these vehicles. “If an accident happened to a Greyhound or Trailway bus, you won’t say the ‘Port Authority Bus’ crashed. Likewise, Chinatown is not a company and it’s absurd to say the ‘Chinatown buses’ are not safe,” Liu said.

But hair-raising traffic accidents of some Chinese-run buses are still rooted in the public consciousness. For instance, a Boston-bound Fung Wah bus from New York crashed and injured 34 last September. Another bus of Fung Wah caught fire on the side of Interstate 91 in Connecticut in August of 2005. The company was fined $44,000 for violating federal safety laws in 2006. Fung Wah recently hired Massachusetts transportation consultant Joe Mokrisky to right its bad records.

Eric Ng, who is president of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and called the “Chinatown mayor,” said consumers should not sacrifice their safety for money. “Fewer accidents seem to happen in Boston, since Boston requires buses to pick up and discharge passengers at South Station terminal. And that enhances safety,” Ng said.

Some Chinese buses save costs by selling tickets at the curbside, using less experienced drivers and paying below-union wages. Ng said sometimes the same bus companies are registered under different names so that the company’s accident record doesn’t look as bad.

OK Travel Bus Inc. refused to comment on the accident.

– I-Ching Ng

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