Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Fung-Wah "Tragedy": Poor, Inexperienced Reporting = Poor, Inexperienced Public Reaction

So I caught the news about the Fung-Wah "tragedy" yesterday, which fortunately claimed no lives and has the number of mostly mildly injured hovering around 33-34. I first caught it on the Channel 7 News this morning, then in the local news snippets on WBZ 1030 radio throughout the morning. Reporters seem to be spinning with the idea that the operator of the bus has been determined by the State Police and other investigators to have been speeding at the time (no kidding) and that he will be cited. They also seem to have this wisdom that there's some correlation between the recent bus fires and yesterday's rollover on an I-290 offramp in Auburn, MA, just south of Worcester. I simply wish to pick at both of these "findings," adding in what these reporters clearly lack: a background in transportation engineering or transportation, coupled with an interest in transportation company affairs (outside of reporting "bad" things). Guess what: I have all three.
So let's start with the the speeding thing. As someone employed in transportation training and safety, I in no way condone the obvious fact that the bus was traveling too fast for the operator to successfully negotiate the curved offramp. And I am 90% certain the operator should be cited for speeding, if not reckless endangerment. However, here's where the engineering part comes in: it's a well-known fact that interstate onramps and offramps in Massachusetts are some of the worst in the country, with many interchanges, on the I-90 (the Mass Pike), I-290 and others requiring drivers to negotiate sharp curves of anywhere from 135-270 degrees where remodeling would reduce most on/offramps to less than 45 degrees while increases in grade would be barely noticeable, even for large commercial vehicles. So what am I saying--fix these bad on/offramps! But that's a never-will-happen like the MBTA reworking all the twists and bends between Arlington and Science Park which send the trains into frequent S-curves and are the main culprit for less than savory speeds at many locations underground. But why make things easier for operators--it's better to just tell people to slow down.
Now, as for the issues with the Fung-Wah Bus Company and how there is zero correlation between the fires of recent years and the "numerous" speeding citations that the company's operators have received. Let's start with the unofficial history of the company. Fung-Wah Bus cropped up a little over a decade as a cheap way to carry mainly employees back and forth between restaurants and offices in Boston's and New York City's Chinatown. As savvy "commoners" caught on to the cheap service, the once bathroom-less mini-buses progressed into full-sized coaches like the one that flipped yesterday. In the meantime there have been rumors (and you know there some truth to most rumors), that the business behind the Fung-Wah bus may be linked to a gang in the New York City area (surprise surprise). It is highly possible--even given mention in the back pages of the Boston Globe and New York Times and other reputable newpapers--that this gang may have been sparring with rival gangs in the area, who own smaller, less profiled bus services. It has been reported that, like garbage truck sabotage by rival gangs in organized crime, Fung-Wah and rival buses and other motorized equipment may have been sabotaged in the same way: deliberate fires and mysterious mechanical difficulties meant to disable the vehicles and "send a message"--not take human lives. So, who knows, maybe the bus fires were part of these elaborate plans to "send a message." Long-story-short, even if they were legitamate lapses in mechanical oversight rather than sabotage, there really is no correlation between that and the speeding issue. Plenty of transportation companies, including lately Fung-Way since those questionable fires, have excellent track records of maintaining their vehicles--a few lead-footed bad apples (and I mean heavily lead-footed, because don't tell me that the "People Professionals" at Peter Pan and Greyhound, which were the saviors for the stranded travelers, don't inch above 65 mph) are everywhere.

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