Proposal calls for mandating commercial GPS on charter buses

By Charles Hamma

Long Island senator Kemp Hannon introduced a bill on April 23 that would make charter buses have to use commercial navigation systems to keep them off of restricted highways.

Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) said the measure would mandate that drivers use a commercial GPS that gives them warnings about restricted highways, low bridges, and alternate routes.

The proposed legislation comes after an accident that took place on the Southern State Parkway on Apr. 8 in which a coach bus full of students smashed into a low bridge on Eagle Avenue in West Hempstead.

“It’s negligence on behalf of the bus driver for not looking at the signs and realizing where he was,” Bob Sullivan, a lawyer representing one of the injured students, said. “And it’s grossly negligent for the company to not equip buses with commercial GPS systems.”

The driver of the bus was using a residential GPS, which only required him to type in the start and end point of the trip. A commercial GPS would’ve computed a route using the height, weight, and length of the bus that would’ve kept it off of the parkway, as commercial vehicles are not allowed on them.

At least one lawsuit has been filed so far citing negligence on both the driver and the bus company’s behalf.

An investigation by State Police showed that signs were clearly marked warning of the low clearance at the Eagle Avenue overpass. The lack of compliance with the posted restriction carries a maximum fine of $2,750 for the driver, Duane DeBruyne, the spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said in an email.

Some feel that going forward with the state mandate proposed by Sen. Hannon would effectively eliminate the chances of such an accident from occurring in the future.

“You will avoid what just happened by federally mandating the use of commercial navigation systems,” Penelope Casey, the executive assistant of the Long Island Limousine Association, said. “They shouldn’t be an add-on for these vehicles. It should be built in and that’s it.”

Furthermore, data on the number of accidents involving oversized vehicles suggests that Sen. Hannon’s bill would be a welcome change. Over 1,400 crashes involving oversized vehicles, which are at least 7 feet tall, have happened on Long Island during the past decade. On the Southern State, overpasses go as low as 7 feet, 3 inches.

In addition, the out-of-state drivers such as the one involved in the Southern State accident need a better way of familiarizing themselves with different highway systems that they encounter. A mandate would make this easier to do than going on a state-by-state basis.

“We have a parkway system on Long Island and in New York that is something that people from out-of-state may be unfamiliar with,” Alec Slatky, a government relations liaison for AAA Northeast, said. “A mandate for this would be most effective because there’s only so much that states can do since this is an interstate problem.”

However, others believe that the responsibility also falls on the company itself to educate its drivers before they venture into unfamiliar territory.

“It is important for any company with a driver traveling in a new, unknown area to fully brief the driver on road rules in the area such as no commercial vehicles on certain roads,” Melanie Hinton, director of communications and media relations for the American Bus Association, said. “With the amount of infrastructure construction happening on America’s highways, it’s important for regular investigations on road conditions and detours in the area.”

Some also say that people must be careful to not view a possible federal mandate for use of commercial navigation systems by charter vehicles as the key to stopping these kinds of accidents altogether.

“We’ve always advocated for commercial drivers to use commercial navigation systems,” Karin White, Vice President of the Trucking Association of New York said. “Ultimately, however, there is no fail-safe option for this.”

Other proposals have been put forth that would help address the matter. Governor Cuomo announced in December that detectors would be installed at 13 different parkway entrances in both Nassau and Suffolk County. These detectors would prevent over-height vehicles from entering in order to prevent dangerous bridge strikes.

Another proposal was introduced by Sen. John Brooks (R-Garden City), who proposed that a clearance bar be established at each parkway entrance on Long Island. While he supports the detectors, Brooks said that they’re ways off from being fully implemented and that the bars could be installed right now.

“What we need to do is make sure that there’s a notification system at every entrance location,” Brooks said. “We’ve got to do something where all of the entrance ramps are provided with a mechanism as soon as possible.”

Both proposals by Brooks and Hannon will be heard at some point before the summer. Though these could help improve safety, some caution that there is one thing that will keep the chances of these accidents happening alive: human judgment.

“There’s no guarantee,” Robert Reichenbach, the vice president of Bird Bus Sales in Plainview, said. “You can lower your chances by paying attention to your GPS or by including the clearance bar, but there’s always going to be the human error element.”