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11 bus firms accused of disability act violations

WASHINGTON -- In a recent sweep of 14 bus companies that operate in the busy Washington-New York-Boston corridor, investigators found that 11 carriers had violated the federal law that guarantees interstate service to disabled passengers, according to government officials.

The purported violations are being investigated by the Justice Department, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, officials said.

The act requires, for example, that large carriers, those with an annual revenue of $7.2 million or more, must outfit at least some of their buses with wheelchair lifts. Disabled passengers must give smaller bus lines 48 hours' notice, but the carriers must accommodate them.

''There have been some pretty horrendous stories" about disabled passengers being denied bus service, said Annette Sandberg, who heads the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the interstate bus and trucking industries.

Sandberg is scheduled to be at a congressional hearing today on low-fare bus carriers, which offer rates as low as $35 round trip between Washington and New York.

The December sweep was part of a crackdown by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on interstate bus companies, low-fare lines, and charter carriers among others that flout federal safety regulations. Sandberg and other federal officials declined to discuss the alleged Americans with Disabilities Act violations or name the 11 companies under investigation.

All told, the December compliance reviews found 176 alleged violations, most for safety-related infractions such as failing to conduct random drug and alcohol tests on drivers, officials said. These reviews followed surprise inspections of 403 buses in October that turned up more than 500 alleged violations, including speeding, faulty brakes, and falsifying records on how long a driver has been on the road.

Sandberg, who is leaving her Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration post tomorrow, plans to detail the agency's new level of oversight at today's hearing before a House Transportation subcommittee.

Previewing her testimony, Sandberg said new bus companies are being targeted for inspections after nine, instead of 18, months, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration plans to make its annual grants to states contingent on state agencies demonstrating that they have effective bus safety programs.

Asked what prompted these measures, Chuck Horan, the administration enforcement and compliance director, said: ''We have recently seen a spike in the death toll in the bus industry. . . . And it also seems like a lot of these of buses are catching fire."

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