Airport shuttles: How safe is your ride?

6:09 AM, Aug 8, 2013   |    comments
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COLLEGE PARK, Ga. -- If you travel, chances are you've used a hotel or parking lot shuttle.

No one gets aboard expecting an accident, and indeed they are rare. But a crash in April that sent 16 people to the hospital certainly raised questions about the industry's safety standards. 

GALLERY | 16 Injured in shuttle bus accident 

Investigators with the Department of Public Safety say the MTI shuttle involved in the accident on Loop Road had bald tires and bad brakes. They believe both played a role in the accident and after examining the company's fleet, shut it down for 10 days while it corrected more than 30 safety violations.

Even then, Wednesday morning, MTI had one of its vehicles on the side of I-285 in Sandy Springs, tying up traffic as the engine burst into flames. There were no passengers aboard and the driver got out safely. The company won't say where the bus was going or why it caught fire.

There are a number of rules that affect how often a shuttle must be inspected and by whom. Many passengers are surprised to learn that some don't ever have to be inspected by the state.

The difference rests on who is providing the shuttle service. A company offering a paid service, or driving passengers for another company, must be inspected every year by DPS.

But park 'n rides and hotels that offer their own private complimentary service only have to be inspected by a licensed mechanic of their choice. Unless there's a complaint or the company is targeted for a random check, there's no one who even asks if it was done.

According to the random inspection reports posted on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, of 266 park 'n ride shuttles inspected in the past two years, companies couldn't prove when 21 of them had last been checked

Even if a vehicle is inspected, things can change. We noticed a worn tire on a shuttle headed to Hyatt's Airport North location while talking with passengers waiting to get on their bus.

We alerted the airport to the safety concern and took our video to a mechanic and tire repair shop.

"The tire is severely worn out.  At that point it's a candidate for a blowout," said Seth Jones, the store manager of Midtown Tire.

Brandon Nichols' shop, WT Standard Automotive and Collision, specializes in repairs on large vehicles. He looked at the video and said, "At any point it can rupture and lose air, possibly cause loss of control of the vehicle."

DPS wouldn't comment on our video, but says a significant loss in tire tread is a violation and can cause them to order a vehicle off the road.

"You're talking about the control of the vehicle. If it's raining, the less tire tread that you have, the less control you're going to have over that vehicle," said Lt. Wayne Mobley.

We also took our video to the Hyatt Airport North location to see what they had to say about it. We did see the hotel shuttle, and its tire had been repaired.

The hotel contracts its service to CE Transportation and says it has asked the company for a safety review.

The manager of CE Transportation admitted the tire was worn out, and says it was never meant to be on the road picking up passengers. He says his driver simply took out the wrong vehicle that day.

It's hard to get a complete picture on the safety of the shuttle buses that operate out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, because the only inspection reports posted online are from vehicles with a US DOT number, something most of the shuttles are not required to have to operate.

"If I was the consumer and I was getting on the bus, I would be paying attention to the driving habits of the driver, whether or not he's driving erratically, the condition of the bus," Mobley said.

Because even with the limited number of reports we could access online, 19 shuttles were cited for worn out tires in the past two years, and 29 drivers were suspended for not having either proper training or medical clearance. DPS shut down Best Limo in April, accusing it of hiring drivers with suspended licenses and drug histories. Investigators deemed every one of their vehicles a safety hazard.

Many of the shuttles that required inspection went without one for seven years, until lawmakers put the responsibility in the hands of DPS. A year and a half later, they're still trying to catch up.

"We're optimistic that by the middle of December of this year, we'll have all those inspected," Mobley said.

Mobley says our investigation should raise awareness, but argues it's not a complete picture.

There are things passengers can do to improve safety. First, pay attention to the condition of the vehicle you're getting into and don't hesitate to report a problem. It could trigger an inspection of the bus and other vehicles in the companies fleet.

To report a problem you must first know the DOT number.  Click here for a list of DOT numbers for local companies.

Click here to search inspection reports.

Also, before paying for a service, check the state's website of approved vendors and if possible, actually review their inspection records.

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