Leasing Rule could mean more Drive-Through Restaurants

The Eagle soared over the summit of Colorado’s 11,500-foot Hoosier Pass and started a predatory dive down the other side.

Sadly, this was an “01” Eagle, and its prey was a restaurant at the bottom of the pass.

It was 1971 and we had rented an extra bus and its driver for a ski trip from a leasing company in Maryland, and apparently neither had ever seen an actual mountain before.

Watching them crest the pass at high speed, roar around a bend, and fade from sight, I thought that either this guy was a terrific driver or we were gonna have some excitement.

Being a weenie, I crept down in low gear, and as we came around the last sharp turn I spotted the Eagle in Denny’s. Actually IN Denny’s.

Between fried brakes and the curve, the coach had given new meaning to “drive-through.”

This was before the industry was deregulated and the leasing company was one of a variety of quasi-legal methods used to get around barriers to entry in the bus business.

You didn’t “charter” from them, you leased the coach, and golly gee whiz, they had a driver you could “hire,” too.

Churches and non-profits had buses they sometimes “rented” in an effort to keep them moving and make a bit of spare change. There was a bus counterculture built around bypassing regulations designed to protect existing carriers.

Established companies called them gypsies, and there was a wide range of quality. Some were shabby, and since they operated under the radar anyway, they skimped on all sorts of things (sometimes including insurance).

Others did a fine job and went rogue because it was the only way they could enter a tightly regulated business.

Many emerged from the shadows as soon as deregulation allowed and, without naming names, have become pillars of the industry. One of my heroes is a bus mechanic who started with a single stealthy 4106 and, following deregulation, became the largest and most respected carrier in his region — a motorcoach Cinderella.

De jure barriers to entry have largely disappeared, and regulatory efforts have shifted towards improving safety. There’s an ongoing discussion regarding whether the burden of some new rules constitutes de facto regulation by creating a difficult environment for small, startup and minority owned companies.

No one advocates abandoning reasonable oversight of the industry. The debate is over what is reasonable.

One thing that bureaucrats, most of whom have never had operational responsibility in the industry they oversee, seem to miss is the creativity of those who feel the rules are unreasonable (or who just don’t give a darn).

Reasonable people follow reasonable rules. When a large portion of the public (or an industry) believes regulation is silly, all bets are off.

Enforcing unpopular laws generates a population that uses its ingenuity to confound authority. This creates a sympathetic criminal class, because to some degree, virtually everyone is a lawbreaker. The rascals consistently outsmart the “good” guys.

Gee whiz, remember Prohibition?

Before 1982 there was an underground charter industry that had virtually no supervision. Because they were forced to find a way around economic regulation, there was no incentive to follow ANY rules, and gypsies dedicated their considerable cleverness to avoiding them.

We’re meandering towards discussing the new lease rule — you know, the one that is in effect, but not being enforced.

The one that says if you farm a job, that you, not the actual operator, are responsible for compliance with even the most obscure regulations.

If you take a job, and farm it, you’ve already put your reputation on the line and you have civil liability if things go wrong. There are major incentives for being careful about who you work with.

Bearing in mind the enormous capacity human being have for thumbing their nose at government, is this regulation opening new doors for mischief? One executive called it a road map for avoiding oversight.

Its stated purpose is to make it easier to catch pop-up repeat offenders. Isn’t there anyone in the bureaucracy creative and diligent enough to use existing law, rather than instituting a new rule that hobbles the industry? Are there really that many miscreants?

One consequence may be a new layer of leasing companies that own buses but are immune to any sort of oversight. The bad guys will come up with tons of creative ways around this goofy rule, while good guys stumble through, trying to comply.

Nobody with a rudimentary understanding of the motorcoach business thinks this is a good idea, except for large companies who see it as hamstringing smaller competitors.

We were silly to lease “flatlanders” buses for a ski trip, and we (and Denny’s) paid a price. There are good reasons to choose carefully when you farm, without adding this ugly layer of regulation. Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.

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