Travel by bus in the U.S.: Driving to extremes

FILE - In this March 12, 2011 file photo, emergency personnel investigate the scene of a bus crash on Interstate-95 in the Bronx borough of New York. It would be harder for tour bus companies to win permission to operate and easier for the government to put rogue operators out of business under a series of bus safety steps announced Thursday by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. (AP Photo/David Karp, File)
David Karp

(CBS News) If Americans have always had a love affair with cars, you might say that they've started flirting with buses - they're convenient, comfortable and cheap! But with buses in the "fast lane," policing bus safety has never been more important. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported by Peter Greenberg:

If you had a TV in the past 50 years, you probably remember commercials - or at least a very familiar slogan - from Greyhound, who asked you to "leave the driving to us."

Those ads are long gone, but now, buses are back.

At a time when gas prices are soaring, train service is limited, and flying has become an expensive chore, the bus business is booming.

After falling off for most of the last five decades, bus travel has gained ground since 2006, with more than 700 million passenger trips last year alone, according to the American Bus Association.

The biggest jump is in what are called curbside bus operators, like Bolt Bus and Mega-Bus, that load passengers on city streets as well as terminals and take them between big cities, often for next to nothing.

One passenger told Greenberg he'd bought his New York-to-Boston ticket for $15. Others paid $9.50, or as little as $1.50. For many, it's just too good a deal to pass up.

In 2011, a year that saw air travel up about two percentage points and train travel up five, curbside bus trips shot up more than 30 percent.

Clearly, the bus game has changed.

In the 1956 film "Freedom Highway" - produced by Greyhound, no less - the bus looked more like a country club lounge, only somehow nicer.

It was safe, but now, with more bus trips than ever, safety officials have their hands full keeping it that way.

NYC bus accident
AP Photo/WABC-TV 7

In March last year, more than a dozen died in a crash on I-95 near New York City (left), when a drowsy driver lost control and hit a signpost, cutting the bus nearly in half.

Just days later, another bus crash on the New Jersey Turnpike left two dead.

Two months later, a crash in Virginia killed four people when their speeding bus rolled onto its roof.

For federal regulators, scenes of horror like these were a wake-up call.

"These crashes really pointed out to us that we needed to focus like a laser beam on these bus companies to make sure the buses are safe, mechanically okay, [and] the bus drivers are well rested and properly licensed," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

In May, the DOT shut down 26 bus companies, for everything from bad drivers to bald tires, and the hunt for rule breakers is ongoing.