A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Despite questions about their safety and a four-year moratorium on new ones, so-called safari buses continue to be a mainstay of island transport, underscoring an ambivalence about their regulation.
The first difficulty is definition.
“How do you determine something that doesn’t even exist?” asked Myrna George, assistant director of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. “If you look up ‘safari’ in the dictionary, you won’t find it.” Not as a vehicle, at least.
You will, of course, find that a safari is “an expedition for hunting or exploration,” and it’s not difficult to see why these open-air, multi-passenger, no frills, no seatbelts, flatbeds-with-seats picked up the adventurous-sounding nickname by which we all recognize them.
Motor Vehicles lists them as “trucks,” but apparently is able to distinguish between safaris and other trucks. George said there are 350 registered on St. Thomas, 120 on St. John and just six on St. Croix. She cautioned that those numbers include vehicles owned by villa management agencies and car rental agencies, as well as by independent drivers.
Some cater to tourists either as taxis or as tour buses. Others provide jitney service to residents, offering low-cost transport along well-traveled routes.
The smaller safari bus generally began life as a pick-up truck, then was modified to carry passengers.
The larger safari – which can hold more than 18 people – is actually “an incomplete vehicle,” according to Judy Wheatley, executive director of the V.I. Taxi Commission. That’s exactly what it says on the door, when there is a door. The large ones are “the greater evil,” she said.
“They’re sold to be finished as something, whether that’s a dump truck or something else,” Wheatley explained. The problem is that in the territory, most of them are modified to carry passengers without following any government-approved stipulations regarding things like weight balance or impact measurements.
“We know from experience, they aren’t always well-modified,” Wheatley said. If a driver complains that his tires wear unevenly, for instance, it’s a sign that the weight balance is off.
Wheatley said her office frequently gets complaints from passengers who have fallen out of a safari or were otherwise injured riding on one. But she also acknowledged that the vehicles provide a service.
They began to proliferate in the 1990s when regular bus service on St. Thomas was faltering. The government has been talking about certification for such vehicles at least since 2002. Wheatley said that is when then-Attorney General Iver Stidiron issued a ruling requiring certification.
In 2009, the Taxi Commission instituted a moratorium on any new safaris unless they are certified safe by a second stage manufacturer. But existing vehicles were grandfathered in and continue to get registered annually.
Meanwhile, all safaris – big, small, old and new – may need to make some more modifications.
“Our latest dilemma is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance,” Wheatley said. There have been complaints about drivers who refused to pick up passengers with disabilities, and those complaints made their way to the U.S. Justice Department. One case involved a person who is blind and who was accompanied by an assistance dog, another involved a wheelchair-bound individual.
“We have a couple cases,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joycelyn Hewlett of the St. Thomas office confirmed, but said she could not discuss details of ongoing cases. What she could say, is “We are working with the Taxi Commission to try to educate the drivers … You can’t just totally disregard the ADA.”
Wheatley said she’s working on setting up training for drivers of all vehicles for hire. “I hope to have it launched by June.”