ST. LOUIS — Last year was less hectic on the state legislative front than the year before, but discussions around the table at the annual Motorcoach Expo State Association Summit proved that there remain plenty of reasons to stay on alert.
“We didn’t use to be real active in politics,” said Bob Garrett of Sunshine Travel & Express in Lancaster, S.C., and president of the Motorcoach Association of South Carolina.
“We felt like most of the politicians were the kind of people you didn’t want to associate with. But we have become very active and we have made friends.”
The friendships helped the association avoid state legislation that would have posed unintended but troublesome complications for motorcoach operators by banning buses from some roads.
“With a little bit of communications we got a slight wording change that totally changed the way the law would come out,” Garrett said. “We hired a lobbyist and he has done a super job of keeping on top of things that come up in our state.”
Proposed laws regarding seatbelt usage, minimum wages, medical leave and party buses have caused consternation across the country. Meanwhile, some associations are taking action to improve access to new driver training and examinations for commercial driver’s licenses.
California is the latest state to face a seatbelt mandate, said Tony Fiorini of Silverado Stages in Placentia, Calif., who is president of the California Bus Association. He said a proposed law would impose a $20 fine for the first offense and $50 for second offenses if passengers are found to be riding without fastened safety belts.
“We understand that people should use their seat belts. We have no problem with saying the driver should announce that you should use your seat belt,” Fiorini said.
“We are against having our drivers state that there is a fine. How is a highway patrolman going to know whether they have their seatbelt on? We are dealing with the staff to get that taken out of the bill.”
Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations and chief operating officer of the United Motorcoach Association, suggested that the commonality of seatbelt proposals across the country justifies proactive preparation.
“I get a lot of calls about the rumblings out there in the states about seatbelts,” Presley said. “The first thing you need to do is see what is on the books that might be interpreted to extend to you and your bus.
“We know there is going to be another tipping point out there somewhere — there is going to be another crash. That is the way it is. When the state legislators or advocates start pounding on doors about doing something, they will start writing legislation that we don’t like. You might think about having some draft language in your back pocket in case you need it,” Presley said.
“The main thing you want to avoid is tagging the driver or operator with fines if people are not wearing seatbelts. When you have 50 or more passengers, there is just no way you can take responsibility for that.”
Oregon has adopted a medical leave law that is being felt by motorcoach operators, said Joe Gillis of Northwest Navigator Luxury Coaches in Portland.
“We didn’t know what was happening until it already happened. We have to give employees 40 hours of sick leave after 240 hours of work. We have two employees who already have used all of their sick leave this year and had never taken a sick day before in six years,” Gillis said.
A medical leave bill is working its way through the Maryland legislature, said Mary Presley, executive administrator of the Maryland Motorcoach Association.
“Despite major lobbying and opposition, the wording on the bill will come out possibly next week,” she said, adding that the outcome “just depends on how bad the hit is.”
As currently written, the bill would require businesses with 15 or more employees to offer seven paid days off annually. Companies with fewer than 15 employees would need to offer unpaid sick leave.
The sick leave would be available to obtain care for a mental or physical illness, to help a sick or injured family member or to “obtain preventive medical care for the employee or employee’s family member.”
A minimum wage law also could raise costs for higher-paid employees, Gillis of said.
“We have a minimum wage of $15 that is rolling in. If you have it coming to your area and people are getting that for handing French fries out the window, your drivers are going to want more money. This is happening all over Washington and Oregon and it is moving out from there.”
Tom Casazza, general manager of Starline Luxury Coaches in Seattle, said party bus accidents in various states have led to a request for party bus legislation.
“Had this bill passed as it was originally written, our drivers would have become liquor enforcement officers and responsibility would have been put on us for maintaining all of the liquor control laws,” Casazza said.
Fortunately, he said, a contact in the state government alerted him to the pending legislation.
“In our state passengers can drink liquor on board a bus if they buy a permit and take full responsibility for everything that happens. The legislators had a good intention but it would have had a major effect on us.
“We were able to rewrite the bill and limit it to vehicles with perimeter seating and dance poles. Yes, that is what party buses are like. My point is, be aware of what is going on and be active because something can go through real quick without you knowing about it,” Casazza said.
Operators also need to be aware of automated highway tolling, said Mitch Guralnick of MCI, secretary-treasurer of the New England Bus Association.
Last fall, the state of Massachusetts ended toll collections on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Now vehicles passing the locations of former tollbooths are scanned so those with transponders can be charged the appropriate tolls on their registered accounts. Images of vehicles without transponders are recorded so bills can be sent to the owners of license plates.
“It is quite an experience,” Guralnick said. “The tolls have jumped and the tolling is not accurate. If the trip is $2 sometimes the machine will charge you $10. I spend a lot of time going over our toll invoices. Think about Peter Pan, which has 100 buses on the Turnpike every day. They have to look at the invoicing for each individual bus every day.”
And, he said, visitors without transponders are very welcome in Massachusetts. “They want you to come to Massachusetts without passes because they can make a lot of money.”
Driver testing, training
The lack of sufficient driver testing resources in New Jersey has prompted its operators to try to create outside examination procedures for commercial driver’s licenses, said Michelle Petelicki, secretary of the Greater New Jersey Motorcoach Association and president of Panorama Tours in Clifton.
“We have been having a lot of trouble getting CDLs for people in time,” she said. “It is a very lengthy and difficult process so we have been working on getting third parties to be allowed to do the testing. We held a train-the-trainer meeting in November and have another coming in March. We are looking forward to success in the pilot program so we can push that forward.”
Garrett of South Carolina said operators are always short on drivers so they are working on a driver-training program.
“We are fortunate to have a guy who retired from a school system and went to work for one of our operators. Teaching is his thing and he has been very involved in trying to set up the program,” he said..
“We have insurance executives working with us on this committee, which is working to determine what is required by the federal government and what everybody would accept as proper driver training.”
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states facing headaches because its driver’s licenses do not comply with federal identification card security standards as specified in the U.S. Real ID Act.
“Five years ago there was legislation passed that banned Pennsylvania from adopting the federal regulations,” said Elaine Farrell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Bus Association.
Non-compliant driver licenses would require Pennsylvanians to obtain U.S. passports to board domestic airline flights.
Also, Farrell said, “It would affect motorcoach operators. Anyone going to certain federal facilities would have to show another form of identification. A lot of our operators have contracts with the Department of Defense to transport veterans and current military people. It could be quite an inconvenience.”
A committee of the state legislature has passed a bill that would bring Pennsylvania into compliance, she said.
“I think they are on a fast track.”
The state legalization of marijuana complicates the operations of commercial vehicle operators, said Gillis of Northwest Navigator Luxury Coaches in Oregon.
“Marijuana is legal in our state. Now they are trying to force employers to not have a drug-free workplace. We could not force employees not to get high on weekends,” he said.
On the other hand, federal regulations prohibit marijuana usage by commercial vehicle drivers.“We already have fired one driver who tested positive,” Gillis said. “We trained them and we put it in the employee manual. It is a huge problem.”