Government oversight of tour bus industry faulted

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 1:45 p.m. MST

FILE - This Aug. 20, 2014 file photo shows salvage towing crews removing an overturned tour bus carrying gamblers to a casino on the 210 Southern California freeway, in Irwindale, Calif. Federal accident investigators called Thursday for a probe of the government agency charged with ensuring the safety of tour buses, saying its own look into four crashes that killed 25 people raises "serious questions" about how well the agency is doing its job.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Federal accident investigators called Thursday for a probe of the government agency charged with ensuring the safety of commercial vehicles, saying its own look into four tour bus and truck crashes that killed 25 people raises "serious questions" about how well the agency is doing its job.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspectors failed to respond to red flags indicating significant safety problems on the part of bus and truck companies involved in accidents in California, Oregon, Kentucky and Tennessee, documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board said. Besides those killed, 83 other people were injured in the crashes, many of them seriously.

The motor carrier administration needs to crack down on bad actors "before crashes occur, not just after high visibility events," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

In one case, federal officials inspected a California tour bus company a month before one of the company's buses overturned near San Bernardino last February while returning from a ski resort. Eight passengers were killed and more than a dozen others injured. The driver told passengers the bus' brakes had failed.

Federal inspectors didn't ask to examine Scapada Magicas' buses during their visit to the company's headquarters near San Diego even though the company's buses had been cited previously for a host of mechanical problems. A post-crash investigation revealed two of the company's other buses had serious mechanical defects, and the company had failed to have its buses regularly inspected by the state.

In another accident, a driver lost control on a slippery highway near Pendleton, Ore., in December 2012, sending his bus plunging into a ravine. Nine people were killed and more than a dozen injured. U.S. officials had previously fined bus operator Mi Joo Tour & Travel, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, for not testing drivers operating buses in the U.S. for drugs and alcohol. But the operator failed to pay the fine and federal officials didn't pursue the matter.

The NTSB's findings are "very disturbing and, frankly, deadly for the public," said Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "It was not until fatal crashes occurred that FMCSA came to the conclusion that the company should not have been on the road even though the evidence to shut down their operations was available."

The motor carrier administration said in a statement that the number of unsafe companies and drivers the agency has taken off the road have more than tripled over the past three years through more comprehensive investigations.

"We have also brought together key safety, industry and enforcement organizations to ask for their help and support our efforts," the statement said. "We are continuously looking for new ways to make our investigation methods even more effective so we shut down unsafe companies before a crash occurs and will thoroughly review the NTSB's findings."

NTSB posted online evidence gathered in both bus crashes, as well commercial truck crashes in Elizabethtown, Ky., and Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy

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