Of all the qualities and states of being we experience when we travel, safety is undeniably the most important. Somewhat paradoxically, suppliers and government regulators have to be obsessed with it so that passengers don't have to be.
We think that's the way it should be. When it comes to boarding a public conveyance, travelers shouldn't have to worry about safety. The business of transport works best if safety is so good, so thorough, so ingrained into the design and maintenance of the equipment and the training of the operators that consumers can take it for granted.
We've come pretty close to achieving that in the developed world. By most statistical measures, travel for most of us is safer than staying home.
Equally important, passengers "feel" safe. Every year billions of travelers and daily commuters step into cabs, transfer shuttles, motorcoaches, airplanes, cruise ships, trains and ferries with a reasonable expectation that they will be safe.
They have to. Without that reasonable expectation, the system breaks down, and the business of transporting passengers becomes impossible. The last thing any transportation provider wants is for passengers to start wondering about safety.
But despite the best efforts of the bus industry and the Transportation Department to maintain safety and the feeling of safety, we suspect some motorcoach passengers are beginning to wonder about the recent string of fatal bus accidents along the East Coast.
Last week's incident in Virginia was the fourth fatal accident this year and the second involving a so-called curbside or "Chinatown" bus offering discounted scheduled service to New York. Worse, the bus company, Sky Express, was already under investigation for a number of previous mishaps.
A study by DePaul University researchers last year reported that, largely because of the growth of such operators, scheduled bus service had become the fastest-growing mode of intercity travel in the U.S. for the third consecutive year.
That may help explain why the DOT, two years ago, began a multipronged initiative to improve bus and motorcoach safety through tougher standards, stricter enforcement and more intense monitoring.
At the time, the DOT noted that bus accidents were resulting in an average of 19 passenger fatalities per year. Statistically, that would seem to be an acceptably low number, given the total passenger population of some 750 million. With a population that large, the difference between 19 and zero is not large.
Still, it also says something reassuring about our culture of safety that government and industry officials view it as a gap worth closing.
This won't be easy. In 2010, the DOT counted 12,000 registered interstate passenger carriers and more than 800,000 vehicles. Its roadside inspections by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last year resulted in out-of-service orders for 4.8% of drivers and 6.7% of vehicles.
Those numbers were better than the results for roadside inspections of heavy trucks, but they don't seen to be trending downward. During a two-week period last month the DOT conducted more than 3,000 such spot checks, resulting in the issuance of out-of-service citations to 127 drivers and 315 vehicles.
That's more than 10% of the vehicles, and we don't think it's a number that makes travelers feel particularly safe.