Casinos play limited role in ensuring safety of buses

Buses pulled over at the bay area of Foxwoods Casino on Friday, March 25, 2016. According to information provided by Foxwoods, averagely 65 buses take about 2,000 passengers to the casino on a daily basis. (The Day/Shelly Yang)
Buses pulled over at the bay area of Foxwoods Casino on Friday, March 25, 2016. According to information provided by Foxwoods, averagely 65 buses take about 2,000 passengers to the casino on a daily basis. (The Day/Shelly Yang)

On Monday, Feb. 8, one of the winter’s nastiest days, bus companies called off 34 scheduled runs to Mohegan Sun. But 25 buses headed for the Uncasville casino, some barreling through snow to reach their destination.

Twenty-four made it.

The one that didn’t, a Dahlia Group Inc. coach, slid off the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 in Madison and flipped on its side shortly after noon. Most of the 55 people on board were treated for injuries that were not life-threatening, but some of which were critical.

Earlier that day, four buses made it to Foxwoods Resort Casino before casino management recommended that carriers suspend service. Fifty-six scheduled runs were canceled.

Every day, upwards of 120 buses deliver customers — 3 percent to 6 percent of the total patronage — to the region's two casinos.

In separate interviews, Ray Pineault, president and general manager of Mohegan Sun, and John Voisinet, executive director of junket and bus marketing for Foxwoods, said their role in ensuring the safety of the buses is limited. That, they said, is the purview of the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

And, Pineault said, the carriers that serve Mohegan Sun decide whether the buses run.

He said Mohegan Sun personnel keep carriers apprised of weather and road conditions but do not act to shut down service.

“We’re not the ones making decisions when to run, when not to run,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s their decision. We do not mandate that they be here.”

Mohegan Sun was “greatly saddened” by the Feb. 8 accident, Pineault said.

“Our main concern was to make sure (the passengers) got to a safe place and that the state police had contact with the driver,” he said. “We continue to talk to bus operators to make sure they pay close attention to the weather. We’re doing everything we can to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Voisinet, a 24-year Foxwoods veteran, said he recommended early on Feb. 8 that all runs to Foxwoods be canceled. By then, a Skyliner bus from Flushing, N.Y., already had pulled in at 1 a.m. and two Peter Pan buses and a Coach Co. bus arrived later, he said.

“It was bad in the morning that day with the expectation that it would clear up,” Voisinet recalled. “Skyliner wanted to stop running until 2 p.m., but I thought it (snow) would continue.”

At 5:41 a.m., he recommended Skyliner cancel the rest of its scheduled buses for the day.

From a business standpoint, it can make sense to cancel runs on days when weather conditions prevent casino employees from getting to work, Voisinet said.

“When the weather’s bad, we scale down our footprint. If our team members can’t get here and that means a guest can’t have a true Foxwoods experience, we forcefully recommend they (buses) don’t come,” he said. “We start early, checking the weather 24 hours in advance. It’s not just snow. Sometimes icy is more important. We always err on the side of caution.”

On Feb. 8, the Tanger Outlets at Foxwoods, a destination for shoppers, closed at 1 p.m., according to a Foxwoods spokesman.

The bus lines serve the casinos as independent contractors and as such are not under the casinos' control. Part of the overall compensation Mohegan Sun pays a carrier is based on the number of customers it delivers and how many of them hold the casino’s Momentum rewards card.

“We want riders we know are loyal,” Pineault said.

The state inspects the buses, though the casino executives were quick to point out that the casinos facilitate inspections by granting DMV inspectors access to buses while they’re parked in the casinos’ bays.

Inspectors visit the casinos weekly, unannounced, and also conduct inspections at the carriers’ terminals and, if circumstances warrant, along roadsides, according to Ernie Bertothy, a DMV spokesman.

“We have roving patrols that can pull a bus over if we observe a driver on a cellphone or speeding or something,” he said. On such occasions, inspectors also may examine a driver’s credentials.

During inspections, Bertothy said, DMV staff check, among other things, brake systems, exhaust systems, frames, fuel systems, head, tail and brake lamps, securement of cargo, steering systems, suspension systems, tires, wheel rims and hubs, windshield wipers and whether emergency exits are properly marked.

The DMV uploads information gathered during inspections to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s online SAFER system, an acronym for Safety and Fitness Electronic Records. The federal agency analyzes the information and issues carrier safety ratings.

A carrier can operate so long as it maintains a “satisfactory” rating. An “unsatisfactory” rating would cause the FMCSA to order a carrier’s buses off the road.

The casino executives said their personnel regularly monitor the SAFER site and pay special attention to whether a carrier corrects any deficiencies identified during inspections. Yet, even the federal agency warns against drawing conclusions about a carrier’s overall safety condition by relying solely on SAFER data.

In the 2011 accident in which 15 passengers were killed when a bus from Mohegan Sun crashed in New York City, the carrier had a satisfactory rating despite its having been cited for drivers who had not had enough rest. Driver fatigue was alleged to have been a factor in the crash though a jury found the driver not guilty of manslaughter and negligent homicide charges.

Pineault said Mohegan Sun terminated the carrier in the 2011 crash. He said that when the casino recently rebid some of its bus service, two operators “did not return,” in part because of their substandard safety records and problems with the condition of their buses.

Voisinet said Foxwoods would immediately terminate a contract with a carrier that earned a “sub-satisfactory” rating.

“We monitor the ratings closely, and if an operator was even getting close to the threshold (of unsatisfactory) I would have no reservations about severing that operator,” he said. “It very rarely happens, which is testament to our procurement process. We feel very confident with our program.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

A Dahlia Group Inc. bus run by VMC Travel Express picks up waiting passengers March 20 from the sidewalk at Prince Street and 39th Avenue in Flushing, N.Y. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s unsafe driving measure, Dahlia is the least safe carrier operating to and from Mohegan Sun. (Shelly Yang/The Day)
A Dahlia Group Inc. bus run by VMC Travel Express picks up waiting passengers March 20 from the sidewalk at Prince Street and 39th Avenue in Flushing, N.Y. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s unsafe driving measure, Dahlia is the least safe carrier operating to and from Mohegan Sun. (Shelly Yang/The Day)

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