On Sunday afternoon, the New York Times travel columnist Lucas Peterson boarded an ill-fated Megabus in Chicago, bound for Milwaukee. Peterson began tweeting a litany of shenanigans: the bus kept stopping on the side of the highway; the driver told passengers that they had to change buses without explanation; a tire blew.
Update: the bus exploded. pic.twitter.com/Sd0rBYN714— The Frugal Traveler (@frugaltraveler) February 21, 2016
Peterson reports that no one was hurt in the accident, and a replacement bus eventually got its human cargo to Milwaukee about five hours later. Still, a number of passengers said they were unable to remove their bags from the bus’s cargo area before it burnt to a crisp. One rider reported losses worth about $1,700, including her laptop. In a statement, the Megabus North America Director of Corporate Affairs Sean Hughes told CityLab his company is “fully cooperating with the authorities with their investigation into the incident.”
The Megabus fracas ended up briefly trending on Twitter on Sunday. I suspect that’s partly because the people of the Internet sensed within the tale a kernel of truth. Beginning with the re-introduction of discount curbside bus service in New York City’s Chinatown around 2000, intercity buses have retained a less-than-stellar safety reputation. A particularly horrific incident in March 2011 saw a speeding Manhattan-bound bus overturn on a Westchester section of Interstate-95, killing 15 people and injuring 18. There have been less-harmful but no less incendiary intercity bus accidents, too: A Fung Wah bus crash on the Massachusetts Turnpike in 2007, a Megabus accident in Georgia in 2012, a BoltBus fire in 2015. (No one was killed or seriously injured in any of these incidents.)
Every accident is horrible, scary, and tragic for those involved. But it’s helpful to remember that, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, curbside buses are pretty safe to ride. Or, in the agency’s words: “In general, curbside, conventional, and nonscheduled motorcoach carriers all provide a safe mode of travel.”
Regularly scheduled and routed services run by larger companies like Greyhound (which owns BoltBus) and Stagecoach Group (which owns Megabus) are much less likely to be involved in incidents than smaller companies are, NTSB has concluded. NTSB uses 2009 data to find passengers are much more likely to die in a car accident (251 occupant deaths per 100,000 accidents) than in a bus one (49 occupant deaths per 100,000). Data from 2008 and 2009, also courtesy of NTSB, finds that charter and tour buses are more dangerous than intercity buses.
This is certainly not to say that intercity bus travel is perfect and completely safe. In 2012, federal regulators led an unprecedented crackdown on curbside buses and shut down 26 companies, citing flagrant violations of safety rules. (Officials were particularly worried that drivers were not getting enough rest between trips.) And earlier this month, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration indicated it still had safety concerns about low-budget bus companies, and said it was considering upping the safety inspection schedule for curbside services like Megabus from once every three years to annually.
Curbside buses are sometimes painfully slow, and there isn’t enough transportation infrastructure to support them. But they are good options for those on a budget. They take up less road space and burn less fuel per passenger than individual cars. Where reliable rail is not available, intercity buses fill an important transit role. Remember that before you buy your next ticket.