Not all charter bus companies are created equal … and not all companies are what they seem. Just like counterfeit watches, handbags, and investment opportunities (to name a few), there are plenty of imposters in the world of charter buses.
If your knock-off Rolex watch stops working, you might be late for an appointment. If you book an illegal charter bus, the consequences for you and your group could be much more dire.
The truth is, there are hundreds of rogue operators on the road, selling charter services illegally. So let the buyer beware. Read on to learn how to tell the difference between a legitimate charter bus company and a fake.
The Good Guys
Legal charter buses are insured, safety-inspected, and authorized for service.
Don’t assume your carrier is good to go unless it’s registered with Michigan's Department of Transportation (MDOT) and has received a “satisfactory” safety rating from MDOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). This rating means the company you’re hiring is in compliance with a number of established standards and regulations. For example:
• The company employs professional drivers.
Motorcoach drivers must possess a Commercial Driver’s License with a Passenger Endorsement. They must be medically cleared to drive a passenger bus -- and carry a card to prove it. Furthermore, they must undergo drug and alcohol testing in compliance with DOT regulations. And, to avoid fatigue, they may never drive more than 10 hours at a stretch.
In other words, charter bus drivers are trained, healthy, rested, and ready for the road. And if they happen to know all the verses of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round,” consider that a bonus.
• The company is properly insured.
Motorcoach companies must carry a minimum of $5 million in liability insurance.
States have their own regulations for commercial drivers. In Michigan, for example, a charter company must get a “certificate of authority to operate” from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). This certificate verifies that the company is insured and has passed the state’s annual safety inspection.
The annual state inspection is only part of the safety equation. Reputable charter bus companies also follow a regular maintenance schedule and conduct an equipment check before each and every trip.
The Not So Good Guys
If a company or individual is operating a bus without federal or state authority, it’s a good bet that they’re not properly insured. They may also be avoiding safety inspections, which suggests they know they’ll flunk. Sure, these rogue operators can offer lower rates – think of what they save on driver training, maintenance, and insurance costs – but they may also be unsafe. And, intentionally or not, they are breaking the law.
An owner may tell you that he’s operating a “private bus” and is not subject to the rules that regulate charter bus companies. Not true. In reality, any bus operator who charges money is, in fact, operating a charter service and must be certified.
The Good Guys Who Could Get in Trouble
Which brings us to the touchy subject of church buses. Here’s the deal: Many churches and nonprofit organizations own buses. As long as they are transporting their own members or – in the case of non-members – as long as they do not charge a fee, they don’t need a charter service certificate. Once they accept payment (even in the form of donations) in exchange for bus rides, they must have a certificate and liability insurance. If in doubt, call your state Department of Transportation.
How to Tell the Difference
How can you tell if a company is in compliance? (How can you be sure you’re riding with one of the good guys?) You can check! Log on to DOT’s Safety And Fitness Electronic Records (SAFER) System and enter the company’s name, MC number, or USDOT number for a company snapshot and a link to insurance information: www.safersys.org/companysnapshot.aspx.
Here’s the bottom line: Chartering a bus is a great way to travel, but choosing the wrong bus can – quite literally – lead to disaster. Do your due diligence so you can sit back, relax, and ride in confidence.