HOUSTON — Months after their state-certified vehicle inspection station was cited by federal authorities for failing to notice defects in a bus that crashed in North Texas, killing 17 passengers, brothers Alam and Cesar Hernandez shuttered their firm. But that didn't mean they were out of the vehicle inspection business.
Instead, they opened another station in the same Houston neighborhood and continued to inspect buses like the one involved in the accident. And they did it with the approval of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The Hernandez brothers' story underlines a phenomenon that highway safety advocates say has long existed with deadly consequences — the lack of oversight for the businesses that perform state inspections of buses and other large commercial vehicles.
Records examined by The Associated Press show that three of the deadliest bus crashes in recent years raised questions about the commercial vehicle inspection programs in Texas, Illinois and Mississippi and prompted calls from the National Transportation Safety Board for better oversight. Forty people died in those wrecks, yet the agency to which the recommendations were directed, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, has refused to act.
Anne Ferro, the FMCSA's administrator, declined through a spokeswoman to comment. The agency has previously termed additional scrutiny of state programs unnecessary.
The inaction has rankled safety advocates, who believe government regulators aren't attentive to the needs of bus travelers.
"If you can't afford to take a plane and have to take a bus, you are going to be subject to second-class safety standards, both in terms of equipment and oversight by the federal government," said Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Federal regulations require that commercial vehicles be inspected annually. Those inspections can be conducted by state personnel, private garages or even the companies operating the vehicles. Passing a roadside inspection also can meet the requirement as long as it occurs within the previous year.
More than half the states have no prescribed inspection requirements, leaving it open to the motor carriers themselves. And even those with approved private garages are not required to subject those companies to oversight or quality assurance.
Safety legislation approved in the Senate on March 14 as part of the highway funding bill would force the federal government to evaluate state inspection programs, but the legislation has stalled in the House.
Former FMCSA head John Hill said the agency doesn't have the resources to monitor state commercial vehicle inspections. States typically employ people to do that, he said.
"If the person chairing the NTSB were the head of the FMCSA, I guarantee he or she would talk differently," said Hill, now a trucking industry consultant.
Documents recently obtained by the AP shed new light on the crash in the North Texas city of Sherman, one of the worst in U.S. history.
NTSB investigators determined that a blown tire caused the bus carrying members of Houston's Vietnamese Catholic community to a retreat in Missouri in August 2008 to careen off the highway. But they also found evidence calling into question the inspection conducted by the Hernandez brothers' business, 5 Minute Inspections, eight days earlier.
The NTSB report cited evidence indicating the bus had passed inspection despite defects that included a retread tire illegally affixed to the front axle and grease contamination in one of the brakes.
The NTSB investigation followed concerns expressed by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, who requested an audit of both 5 Minute Inspections and the inspector, Cesar Hernandez.
"In light of all the circumstances, I seriously feel this 'inspection' was 'pencil-whipped,'" the trooper wrote in a memo after the accident.
Despite those issues, the DPS granted the Hernandez brothers approval for their new business in May 2010, and it remains in good standing, records show.
Yen-Chi Le, a Houston medical researcher whose mother died in the crash, expressed outrage when she learned that the brothers were still able to inspect buses.
"We thought there was no way they'd stay in business," she said. "This makes my stomach turn."
A DPS spokesman said the agency didn't find the issues raised by the NTSB or the trooper "sufficient to justify action" against the station. However, further inquiries have led the department to seek Cesar Hernandez's suspension for bogus inspections of passenger vehicles, the spokesman said.
The DPS employs more than 200 officers and auditors to support its vehicle inspection program, and it improved its investigative process under a reorganization plan instituted two years ago, the spokesman said.
Messages left for the brothers were not returned. An attorney for Cesar Hernandez said his client did not want to discuss the matter.
Another accident points to similar problems with a bus that passed inspection in Illinois.
The NTSB's investigation of the 2004 crash in Arkansas determined an inspection conducted by a state-approved garage in Chicago two months earlier failed to notice cracks in the rail supporting the engine. The defect wasn't the cause of the wreck, which killed 15 members of a tour group, but it should have kept the bus off the road, according to the NTSB.
The garage was conducting inspections at the time even though three months earlier it had pleaded guilty to failing to notice a hole in a school bus' muffler, according to Illinois Department of Transportation records.Comment on this story
An IDOT spokesman said the garage wasn't under any restrictions when it inspected the bus because the school bus case had yet to be heard by a judge. The firm later received a one-month suspension because of the school bus infraction, and it then stopped inspecting vehicles altogether, the spokesman said.
Questions about the effectiveness of allowing motor carriers to inspect their own vehicles emerged after a church bus from Texas crashed in Louisiana in 2003, killing eight passengers.
The bus hit a tractor trailer from Mississippi that was parked on the shoulder because its brakes were smoking. The NTSB blamed the crash on the bus driver, but it also found that the tractor trailer was being operated in a "serious state of disrepair" despite passing an inspection conducted by the president of the company six months earlier.
Mississippi Lt. Donald McCain said his state believes roadside inspections conducted by law enforcement are adequate for making sure commercial vehicles are being properly maintained.