As Halle Berliant watched her bus creep farther away from the Tampa airport on her phone’s map, the knot in her stomach tightened.
Berliant, a UF health science freshman, called her mom, Elizabeth Berliant, and said she was nervous.
“I’m sure they know what they’re doing,” her mom said.
As the bus traveled down Interstate 75, Halle Berliant realized the mistake and asked to be let off.
So the bus drivers dropped her off — at exit 229 in Palmetto, along the side of the road with her green suitcase, Berliant said. She looked around in the hopes of seeing a grocery store, gas station, any sign of civilization, but saw nothing.
“I was very scared,” the 18-year-old said. “I didn’t know where I was.”
The incident raises questions about the practices of bus companies serving students. A variety of bus lines operate throughout Florida, with three of the most popular options being RedCoach, GMG Transport and Megabus — all of which boast their safety record but still have complaints.
RedCoach has several measures in place to ensure the safety of passengers and drivers, Daniel Sant’Ana, the operations manager of RedCoach, said.
Each bus is equipped with GPS tracking and a system to notify a call center of any mechanical issues. The headquarters also receives weekly reports on drivers to check for violations.
“We take safety seriously. It’s not something to take lightly,” he said. “Our main goal is to provide a great experience for the passengers.”
Standing on the side of the road with her suitcase and backpack for 15 minutes, Berliant scrambled to call an Uber to make it back to Tampa for her 7 p.m. flight.
She couldn’t find any landmarks to tell the driver, she said. Sant’Ana said she was dropped off near a fire station and commercial plaza, at 9312 49th Ave. E in Palmetto, but Berliant remembers seeing nothing.
One $56 Uber ride, and $60 RedCoach ticket, later, Berliant made it to the airport. But her family still doesn’t know how it was allowed to happen.
On the bus leading to the Tampa drop-off location, Berliant asked one of the two men driving, who was not in uniform, if the next stop was for the airport, she said. He said no.
After about an hour, Berliant approached the driver again, who told her to ask the other driver. Berliant hesitantly tapped the man, who had been asleep, and asked.
He laughed, she said.
They had passed Tampa ages ago, he told her. The next stop was Naples.
“It felt very degrading, like he was judging me for being a young girl, and like I didn’t know where I was and made me feel like I was really clueless,” she said.
The drivers, whose names were not released, will receive a written warning for breaking protocol and letting Berliant off at a non-designated stop, Sant’Ana said. The driver not in uniform was a trainee, who was being supervised by the sleeping driver.
“Ideally he should be awake through that, but I would not reprimand the driver if he falls asleep while he is not driving if he is just the companion for the second driver,” Sant’Ana said.
Twenty days after the incident, Berliant’s mom received a response from RedCoach saying she was let off due to her insistence. Sant’Ana said passengers are responsible for knowing their stops.
The company offered Berliant 20 percent off on her next trip, but Elizabeth Berliant vowed to never use the company again.
“My beautiful 18-year-old daughter standing on the side of the road with nothing around her was absolutely a parent’s worst nightmare,” she said.
Over the past three years, RedCoach, which only serves Florida, has closed 28 complaints through the Better Business Bureau and an overall “A” rating. The complaints include buses being several hours late, ignoring requests for refunds and trips being canceled last minute.
RedCoach was also issued six citations in Broward County during 2017 for operating buses without a current valid permit, according to court records. Two of the citations have been dismissed and the other four cases are open.
Megabus, an international bus company that began servicing Gainesville in 2011, has had 908 complaints submitted to the bureau in the past three years. The company has been around for four years longer than RedCoach and serves 33 states.
Megabus has invested $1.5 million in safety precautions like GPS technology and a 24/7 call center that monitors drivers in real time, according to a brochure from Sean Hughes, the director of corporate affairs for Megabus. The company also requires drivers to take at least nine hours between each shift, one hour longer than the federal requirement.
“We feel that we’re the industry leader as far as safety goes,” he said.
Elana Goldstein, a UF accounting graduate student, said she doesn’t know if Megabus is the industry leader but certainly feels safe on it.
The 22-year-old has ridden a variety of commercial bus lines including Megabus, GMG Transport and Greyhound but has become a loyal customer to Megabus, she said.
“I don’t know any bus company that does a better job,” she said.
Kevin Chi, a UF psychology sophomore, prefers to use GMG Transport — a bus company servicing only Florida — when he travels back to Miami. The 20-year-old said he feels safer because it specifically serves college students and their friends.
Jennifer Socorro, a manager at GMG Transport, said the company serves between 200 and 300 students weekly. The company has had two complaints through the bureau within the last three years.
None of their drivers have ever received a ticket while operating a bus since the company began in 1983, she said. Socorro believes it’s due to their high standards. Most of their drivers have at least 10 to 12 years of experience with other bus companies before they join.
Though RedCoach won’t suspend either of the drivers, they’re planning a meeting Tuesday to discuss what happened, Sant’Ana said.
“We need to make measures to ensure drivers don’t repeat the same exact kind of mistakes,” he said.
Elizabeth Berliant wants to make sure nobody else goes through what her daughter did. Although she’s not satisfied with the company, she is thankful her daughter made it home safely.
“We are lucky that she’s unharmed,” she said.
Contact Jessica Giles at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_giles_.
Students and other passengers walk toward a RedCoach bus to begin boarding Thursday afternoon at the Commuter Lot as UF will begin its Spring Break this upcoming week.