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Sightseeing bus companies aren't required to report accidents to NYC; police reports lacking

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Companies that run New York City's growing armada of double-decker sightseeing buses, like the ones involved in last week's Times Square crash, have no legal obligation to report accidents to the city agency that licenses them.

The Consumer Affairs Department — one of at least five entities involved in regulating the brightly colored behemoths — disclosed the loophole with The Associated Press as scrutiny of the buses intensified following the crash that injured 14 people Tuesday.

Spokeswoman Abby Lootens said city law does not require companies to report accidents to the department.

An aide to City Council transportation chairman Ydanis Rodriguez called the news "troubling" and said they would look into remedying it. This week Rodriguez proposed revoking city-issued licenses from companies whose drivers rack up multiple violations.

The lack of mandatory accident reporting is one of several critical gaps in the amalgam of agencies governing the city's booming sightseeing bus industry.

The police department, for one, lumps all buses in the same category on accident reports that go to state agencies involved in licensing drivers and inspecting the vehicles.

The state Transportation Department analyzes the reports but cannot quantify their accidents because of the broad categorization, spokesman Beau Duffy said.

The Transportation Department posts safety reports on its website, but those only convey inspection results.

Grey Line, the city's largest sightseeing company, had 11 per cent of its 80 buses sidelined for mandatory repairs last year, Duffy said. One of its buses was involved in the Times Square crash.

Duffy said a rate of 20 to 25 per cent would be cause for concern.

Other types of buses have different oversight and reporting requirements enabling the government to track their accidents, transportation officials said.

Because the city does not require the information, Consumer Affairs does not consider accidents when renewing a sightseeing company's license.

The department, set up primarily to police poor business practices, had already moved to revoke New York Apple Tours' license on that basis in 2000 when a company bus killed an actor near Times Square, and its final ruling came only after the state stripped the company of its bus registrations.

These holes in the regulatory system obscure the truest picture of the operational and safety history of the 263 double-decker buses — up from 57 a decade ago —dawdling along the city's most congested avenues.

The legal loophole and the police's imprecise records deprive the public of an important metric and leave companies without official numbers to back up their claims of high safety and few accidents.

Harris Schechtman, the director of transit planning for the consulting firm Sam Schwartz Engineering, said the division of oversight responsibilities made sense because they are "independent spheres."

"As long as they're being administered properly, the system works," he said. "Would it be nice to have one-stop shopping? Maybe."

A spokesman for Twin America, owner of the companies in the Times Square crash, did not return a message.

Franci Swanson, visiting from Connecticut with her daughter, said the crash made them rethink a double-decker tour.

"It shook me up," Swanson said. "I'm a little freaked out."

Police initially said a driver failed a field sobriety test, but prosecutors said screenings were negative and they were waiting for a full toxicology report to decide on charges.

The crash came amid a boom in the sightseeing business.

More buses than ever are shuttling tourists and more companies — 15, up from 8 in 2005 — are in on the action, Lootens said.

Visitors have hailed them as a convenient way to see landmarks. Locals decry them as a nuisance.

The Times Square Alliance, representing business and tourism interests, said it was concerned about the proliferation of buses hampering pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the bustling crossroads of the world.

Last week's crash also highlighted a regulatory divide crossing state lines.

Driver William Dalambert's license was issued in New Jersey. His record included 20 suspensions — for administrative and insurance issues — but his license was valid at the time of the crash and he was not required to obtain one from New York.

A spokesman for New Jersey's licensing agency, the Department of Motor Vehicles, said oversight of drivers is "largely the responsibility" of employers.

The department notifies companies of a driver's traffic convictions and license suspensions, but the program is only available for New York driving records. Other states offer similar services.

Schechtman said reciprocity agreements between states make policing drivers "more complex."

"If you look at it on paper, there is a very reasonable, if not tight, system in place to monitor your driver's performance," Schechtman said. "The real burden to make sure that it's used to the fullest is on the bus company."

___

Associated Press writer Rachelle Blidner contributed to this report.

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