A recent safari bus accident on St. Thomas that injured 13 people spurred a question from Attorney Tom Bolt, who asked: “What is the current status of safari buses in the U.S. Virgin Islands?”
Bolt wrote, “I have heard that they were prohibited by federal law due to their lack of safety features (seatbelts, doors, etc.). In addition, I understood that the Government of the Virgin Islands was no longer registering new safari buses.”
According to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, safari buses are currently operating legally in the territory. However, the BMV has not registered any new buses for approval for more than a year – there were none approved in 2011, and the Taxicab Commission has not authorized any new requests for an even longer period.
In 2009, the commission issued a statement that they were no longer going to approve any newly built safari taxis without receipt of an approved modification permit dated before Feb. 20, 2009.
According to Taxicab Commissioner Judith Wheatley, there have not been approvals for anything newly built or modified to operate as a safari bus since then, and she said that everything from 2011 and 2012 has been rejected by the BMV. However, past vehicles are still in operation.
Myrna George, assistant director of the BMV, confirmed Wheatley’s statement and said that current safari taxis are running legally, but George noted that the BMV is currently in the process of reviewing the status.
George said, “Since most of the of the safaris are Ford vehicles, we want to get a professional opinion on the modification of the vehicles.”
“As soon as we receive the information, Director Brown will make statement on safari vehicles and other taxis in general,” George said.
A change in policy will be forthcoming upon receipt of information from Ford Motor Company regarding the modifications, she said..
An employee from Ford Motor Company, who is not authorized to speak on the record, did say that a Ford vehicle that has been modified in any way should only be modified by an authorized modifier approved by Ford.
According to Rob Stevens, Ford Motor Company’s chief vehicle engineer, there is not a Ford qualified vehicle modifier in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ford provides an “Incomplete Vehicle Modifier Guideline” with each vehicle that provides information on the maximum weight loads, maximum height of modification, center of gravity requirements, and other items.
Stevens said that when Ford sells the incomplete vehicles, they do not review or certify any of the designs on what the finished vehicle will look like.
Joe Annis, general manager of Metro Motors on St. Thomas, said there are several welders on-island who in his opinion do a superb job with safari bus modifications, even better than certified modifiers in some instances.
As an authorized Ford dealer, Annis sells the trucks but does not modify them. He said when he first came to the island there were many F-350s and below that were modified as safari buses, but in his opinion, only a Ford F-450 can safely support 27 passengers.
Annis said he has been working with George to have a local vendor design a body that only has one entrance with an aisle down the middle equipped with seatbelts.
“We’ll get there eventually, but we just haven’t done it yet,” he said.
Stevens said that there are F-series vehicles that have been converted to buses following the “Incomplete Vehicle Modifier Guidelines” or by working with a Ford qualified vehicle modifier.
The accident on Jan. 27 involved a 2002 Ford F-350. Another accident, involving a woman who fell out of a safari bus on St. John and died as a result of her injuries was in a safari bus F-450 driven by an unlicensed taxi driver.
Federal regulations do require that all vehicles that have been modified to have a certification label from the manufacturer and/or a second-stage manufacturer stating that it has met federal highway safety standards.
There is no federal law outlawing the operation of a safari bus or a multi-passenger vehicle without seatbelts. Nowhere in the V.I. Code does it say that safari buses should not be operated; however, Title 20 does specify that children under the age 13 be properly restrained by a child-restraint system or booster seat. But there is an exemption for “buses.” It is unclear whether that definition excludes modified taxis.
When asked why safari buses are approved without seatbelts, George said, “Well that’s before my time. You have to understand safari buses have been on the road forever and a day. I came on in 2006. What happened 10-15 years ago did not fall under me. We have them now and we need to fix the problems moving forward.”
BMV Director Jerris T. Browne did not return phone calls seeking comment regarding the lack of seatbelts on safari buses.
An employee with the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, who asked that her name not be used, said that it’s common knowledge that there is no federal regulation requiring vehicles to be equipped with safety belts. Those laws are regulated by states and territories, the employee said.
She also said that there are no federal laws on the use of child restraints, only on the manufacturing of such restraints. A website search confirmed the veracity of the employee’s statements.
Doors are also not required by federal standards. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations only specify that “Passenger Cars, Multipurpose Passenger Vehicles, and Trucks with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of 4,536 kg (10,000 lbs.) or less, and Buses with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of 3,860 kg (8,510 lbs.) or less (Effective 9-18-95)
Shall meet phase-in requirements for vehicle upper interior components, including, but not limited to, pillars, side rails, roof headers and the roof.”
The Source contacted the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the Taxicab Commission, Ford Motor Company, and referenced the V.I. Code and the National Highway Transportation Safety regulations to answer this question.