- Associated Press - Friday, September 29, 2017

NEW YORK (AP) - A bus driver who barreled through a red light and slammed into another bus in New York City this month, killing himself and two others, had a history of accidents and a recent conviction for driving drunk, but he was legally allowed to drive under federal rules that grant one strike before banning a driver for life.

Raymond Mong lost a job as a New York City bus driver in 2015 after pleading guilty to an off-duty, hit-and-run, drunken-driving crash in Connecticut. He was still serving 18 months’ probation when he got into another crash in his personal vehicle in June of 2016.

Neither of those wrecks, though, kept him from legally getting behind the wheel of a bus again.

He got a job with a charter company and had a valid commercial driver’s license on Sept. 18 when he powered his empty bus through an intersection in Queens at nearly twice the 30 mph (48 kph) speed limit, hit another bus, plowed onto a sidewalk and crashed into a building, police said. Sixteen people were hurt in addition to the three killed.

It isn’t clear exactly when Mong started driving for the charter company, a small outfit called the Dahlia Group.

It’s possible his out-of-state conviction slipped through the cracks. Private motorcoach operators aren’t required by federal law to do a criminal background check on employees, though the rules differ for school bus drivers or anyone carrying hazardous materials. And there’s no clearinghouse where companies can search a prospective employee’s criminally bad driving record.

New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles is supposed to be informed whenever a driver is hired so it can run various background checks, but a spokeswoman for the agency said Dahlia never did so.

But even if that notification had been made, it wouldn’t necessarily have precluded Mong from driving.

Under rules set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a driver convicted of certain crimes, such as leaving the scene of an accident or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, can have their license suspended for up to a year. After that, they can go back to their work.

A second violation means they’re disqualified for life, though some people can be re-instated after a decade. And other, lower-level infractions committed while in a personal vehicle don’t count as a strike at all against their commercial license.

The restrictions are relatively new - within the past decade - said officials with the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, medical and public health groups that aims to improve road safety.

“It used to be that what you did in a private vehicle was never held against your commercial license,” said Henry Jasny, general counsel for the group.

But there has to be a balance between allowing a mistake and recognizing a dangerous pattern.

“Part of the problem is that one DUI isn’t necessarily indicative of a bad actor,” especially if they’re not driving the bus while drunk. “There’s some balancing between how serious the violation is and pulling someone’s right to earn a living for 10 years.”

There are about 3,200 private bus companies in North America, and they make more than 600 million passenger trips annually on charters, tour buses and shuttles, and overall have a good safety record.

While employers are required to test for drugs and alcohol, there was no way to prevent a driver who failed a test from quitting and going to a new company. By 2020, a national clearinghouse will be established where bus companies around the country can check the results of a commercial driver’s drug and alcohol testing, Jasny said.

Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, said companies are required by law to do a 10-year employment history check on drivers to see their performance history and also pull their motor vehicle records. New drivers also are required to pass a test.

He said companies he’s spoken with wouldn’t want to hire a driver with a recent drunken-driving conviction.

“As a company you want to make sure you have the best and safest people behind the wheel,” he said.

Dahlia has not responded to repeated requests for comment, and it is unclear whether the company’s managers were aware of Mong’s driving record.

Like Mong, the company has a blemished record. One person died when a Dahlia bus overturned in 2016 while driving through a snowstorm to reach the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.

In 2003, two people died when a Dahlia bus crashed in New Jersey on the way to a casino in Atlantic City, according to news accounts at the time.

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