Medical advice for bus regulators: don’t be buttheads

My doctor just retired. In addition to being a great physician, Sidney had the gift of knowing how much doctoring each of his patients needed.

Dave Millhouser

His bedside manner ranged from “Don’t be a butthead, just do it” to doing warm and fuzzy house calls when needed.

He took great pride in keeping his patients out of the hospital, even if it was more work for him.

Not too much, not too little — he doctored each of us just the right amount. We actually enjoyed our visits because his goal was to help us make our individual lives better, not to impose some sort of one-size-fits-all regimen that was “efficient.”

Our regulatory system could take a few hints from his practice. Recently a six-bus operator shut down, not because he was forced out, but because he just had enough.

In this case it was the cost and aggravation involved with electronic logging devices. He is not alone, and our industry is shrinking precipitously.

Bureaucrats might well take the position that we are better off without companies that are unable or unwilling to crest the regulatory barriers they put in place. After all, the rules are only there to protect the public.

Really? Is there a larger “weltanschauung?” Chunking in a little German here to improve my gravitas. Look it up; it’s a real word.

Is the country better served by shrinking the business? Or are we engaging in a cosmic game of “Not in my backyard?”

Every bus line that closes, or downsizes, reduces the number of seats available in what is arguably the safest (and most economical) form of transportation in the country. That means that either people are traveling less (a bad thing) or are traveling by car (a worse thing).

Regulators with a narrow view are gratified by the fact that, as the fleet shrinks, the number of bus accidents goes down — a real boon for their statistics. A more common sense worldview recognizes that a substantial portion of the public they serve is being forced to either curtail travel or use riskier forms of transport.

The current regulatory scheme is pushing those irritating accident deaths and injuries into someone else’s statistical backyard.

I can only think of three reasons for regulations. First would be to improve safety; second would be to create a level playing field for businesses, so the public benefits; and finally, to make life simpler for regulators. That’s probably a reasonable order.

There is a case to be made that a substantial part of the immense number of rules that apply to us do not accomplish those goals in a meaningful fashion and their shear weight is counterproductive.         What we can strive for is something akin to my doctor’s practice — not too much, not too little.

You’ll notice we’re not hearing of GBBs (Great Big Buslines) bailing out. It’s the little folks who quietly give up the ghost.

One reason GBBs hang in is because they have huge economies of scale in dealing with regulatory requirements like drug testing and technology. Regulatory compliance is a cost of doing business that effectively reduces competition.

Bureaucrats listen to them because it is easier to deal with a few big guys than a lot of little ones. It suits their purpose because the additional regulatory burden appears to reduce casualties.

And gee whiz, who can argue with better safety statistics? Certainly not the folks who die in car accidents, because they’ve been buried in non-bussy statistical graveyards. Over-regulation doesn’t seem to improve overall safety, just bus statistics.

Is the public better served by a shrinking industry? The overburden of regulation is not our only problem, but it certainly drives competent operators out and reduces new entries (with their energy and ideas).

If that’s correct, then too many rules certainly don’t level the playing field; they tilt it towards the fewer remaining GBBs.

Making things easier for regulators is not a lofty goal. You can make the case that new technology like ELDs will simplify things for operators and law enforcement alike. The fact is that folks who cheated in the old system will find ways to bypass the new ones.

Does that jewel know if you’re sleeping (or working another job)?

In addition to reducing travel and putting the public at risk, over-regulation has killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The market for used coaches has shriveled because the small companies who traditionally bought them are disappearing. GBBs and manufacturers take note.

The plea here to regulators is that you learn from my doctor, Sidney, and do just enough to make the patient thrive. Otherwise the surgery will have been successful even when the patient dies.

Too often we’ve instead gotten the placebo effect, where we spend a lot of energy and money on something that really does nothing.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at

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