NEW JERSEY – After scores of complaints, safety violations and a crash that killed an infant, PIX11 went undercover and caught some jitney drivers committing dangerous acts behind the wheel: texting or talking on cell phones, passing and speeding on New York and New Jersey roadways - endangering motorists, pedestrians and passengers.
One driver took or made as many as nine phone calls, while racing down Boulevard East in West New York, New Jersey. Another took her eyes of the road to text or scroll on her smartphone while navigating traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel on West 40th Street in Manhattan.
Some jitneys are mid-sized buses, while others are simply re-outfitted school buses. All pick up commuters for as little as one-dollar.
Some of these private jitney companies have racked up almost 100 unsafe driving violations in the past two years, with only a handful of drivers on staff. Federal violations accrued include driving without a commercial license, driving with a suspended license, driving while intoxicated or fatigued.
There is no absolute limit for the number of violations one company can accrue. An official with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said that imminent hazard and "out-of-service" determinations are made on a case-by-case basis. Companies with a poor safety rating are given priority for investigation or intervention.
Sphinx Transportation, which operates in New Jersey and New York, has received 196 violations in the past two years. A Sphinx driver, Idowu Daramola, was charged in 2013 with death by auto, reckless driving and using a cellphone behind the wheel after his bus careened into three parked cars and a light pole, which toppled onto the stroller of an 8-month-old girl.
“That’s the second that changed my entire life,” said Maylin Paredes, the baby’s mother.
Parades, a new mom, was pushing her daughter Angelie in a stroller along Boulevard East in West New York, N.J., when the pole came crashing down.
“My daughter would have been 3 this year,” said Paredes.
Federal regulators have investigated Sphinx Transportation eight times in the past 10 years. The carrier has been flagged for serious driver fitness violations and problems with vehicle maintenance. When undergoing inspection, their buses have a 30-40 percent ‘out-of-service’ rate, but the company continues to hold a ‘satisfactory’ federal safety rating.
PIX11’s undercover investigation found Sphinx drivers talking or texting behind the wheel repeatedly in the past two months.
“I apologize for what’s happened, but I will take care of it,” promised Magdy Abdallah, President of Sphinx Transportation.
When we confronted Abdallah and showed him what we found, he showed us the company’s safety policy. It prohibits drivers from speeding, reckless driving, driving without a proper license, using a cell phone behind the wheel and other hazardous behavior.
But most offenses, according to company policy, leave room for a second, even a third chance behind the wheel. When asked how the company would handle the driver who used his phone 9 times while driving, Abdallah responded that he would not be fired.
“This for me is the first time, so it’s gonna be for one-week suspended,” he said.
“It truly is a sad thing that after the laws have been enacted, that after we’ve done enforcement, that there are still bus operators out there that are violating the law,” said Steve Lee, Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.
Authorities in New Jersey cited two-dozen jitney companies for not posting the consumer complaint hotline on the inside and outside of their buses. It’s one component of "Angelie’s Law," named for Angelie Paredes, which took effect on January 1, 2015.
The statute also requires jitney drivers to have a commercial license and give a blood sample after a serious accident.
“They just have to comply,” said New Jersey State Senator Nick Sacco, who sponsored "Angelie’s Law." “Just drive like a regular public service bus and it won’t be a problem, but cutting people off and doing the the things that they’re doing and putting people’s lives in jeopardy, this has to stop,” he said.
After learning about PIX11’s undercover investigation, State Sen. Sacco promised action by law enforcement.
“They shouldn’t be on the streets,” said Maylin Paredes, after viewing our video, “they shouldn’t be behind the wheel.”