April 10 (Bloomberg) -- A bus company cited for brake defects and other violations still won U.S. regulators’ top safety rating a month before one of its vehicles careened down a mountain road because the driver couldn’t stop, records show.
Inspectors found records of brake flaws, evidence of drivers working excessive hours, and shortcomings in paperwork on maintenance, hiring, drivers, and alcohol and drug tests in an audit dated Jan. 9, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Owners of Scapadas Magicas LLC told investigators they hadn’t reviewed U.S. regulations even after having been audited five times since 2007. A pledge to be more attentive was enough to earn a “satisfactory” rating, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s highest, allowing the company to operate without restrictions, the records show.
Eight people died when a bus covered in the Scapadas Magicas audit went out of control in the San Bernardino National Forest in California Feb. 3 and hit a truck en route to Tijuana, Mexico, as the driver yelled his brakes had failed, according to passengers.
The incident fits a pattern, cited by U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman three days after the wreck, of the bus regulator not closing companies with known safety shortcomings until after fatal crashes.
“Historically, the agency has always wanted to jawbone and educate rather than take action,” said Henry Jasny, president and general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based watchdog group.
The agency has tripled inspections over the past seven years and took 880 drivers and 1,831 vehicles out of service in 2012, Bill Bronrott, FMCSA deputy administrator, said in an e-mail.
Regulators have taken 255 bus companies out of service in the past two years, Bronrott said. A May 2012 crackdown on so-called Chinatown bus operations along Interstate 95 was the largest enforcement action in the agency’s history, he said.
Ramon Ramirez Garcia, described in records as Scapadas Magicas’s president, didn’t return three phone calls to two numbers in U.S. and Mexico seeking comment. A third number listed in U.S. records was disconnected. An e-mail sent to the address listed in the company’s January review bounced back, and he didn’t respond to an e-mail sent to an address listed in other Transportation Department records.
The infractions found during the Jan. 9 inspection were mostly paperwork violations and technicalities, said Duane DeBruyne, an FMCSA spokesman. Investigators deemed they weren’t widespread. The five violations of the 15-hour maximum work day amounted to 3.3 percent of the 150 days checked.
“None of these violations individually or cumulatively affect a carrier’s safety rating,” DeBruyne said in an e-mail.
Only after the accident did agency investigators find the company was using an unqualified mechanic and didn’t have a facility adequate to maintain commercial buses, DeBruyne said.
The paperwork Scapadas Magicas produced for the audit suggested it had systems in place to ensure regulations were followed, something agency investigators later discovered wasn’t true, DeBruyne said.
Scapadas Magicas,a Mexican company listing an address in National City, California, specialized in taking groups from Tijuana to U.S. destinations including Las Vegas, Southern California mountains, casinos and Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm. The bus that crashed was returning from a skiing trip to Big Bear Lake, west of San Bernardino.
Inspectors doing the Jan. 9 review knew the bus was taken off the road for brake defects after a roadside inspection months before, records show. They didn’t look at any buses or repair facilities, DeBruyne said.
A compliance review focuses on company records, DeBruyne said. Bus companies’ vehicles are usually on the road, though investigators may look at equipment if it’s on the premises, he said.
In addition to noting the bus’s history of brake defects, auditors in the Jan. 9 safety review found records showing that loose wheel fasteners, defective axle positioning parts and improper wiring had been found in roadside inspections. The mechanical defects, lack of records, and violations of U.S. rules on drivers’ work hours FMCSA documented were the same issues the agency cited in ordering Scapadas Magicas to shut down five days after the fatal crash.
In the shut-down order, FMCSA said the company “fails to ensure that its commercial motor vehicles are systematically inspected, repaired and maintained and fails to ensure that its drivers are properly qualified and have appropriate licenses for the commercial motor vehicles they operate.
‘‘Individually and cumulatively, these violations and conditions of operation substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death to Scapadas Magicas’s drivers, passengers and the motoring public.’’
Federal inspectors on Jan. 9 met Ramirez Garcia and the company’s operations manager, Ramon Ramirez de la Rocha, at an office in a San Diego industrial park.
FMCSA had notified the company of the review on Nov. 20, about six weeks before inspectors arrived. The records made available to the inspectors showed buses had been operated when drivers were supposed to be off duty on five occasions between August and October. In one case in August, a driver spent three hours behind the wheel after the federal 15-hour limit, making it an 18-hour day.
Ramirez Garcia and Ramirez de la Rocha told investigators that they hadn’t reviewed all of the U.S. regulations that applied to a passenger-bus company, the records show. The two took notes and assured FMCSA they would do better.
‘‘They were going to make sure they follow up more often with their in-house policies and procedures in order to avoid future violations,” the agency’s report said.
At the conclusion of a 2008 audit, FMCSA investigators had noted: “For the closing of this investigation, Ramon Ramirez, owner, was explained in detail and educated on how to comply with all the violations cited.”
After shutting down Scapadas Magicas on Feb. 8, the bus agency closed six more companies between Feb. 15 and March 25. They included Fung Wah Bus Transportation, the largest company operating between Chinatown neighborhoods in Boston and New York.
Last May, the Transportation Department shut down 26 companies in its largest motor-coach safety sweep. Three so-called Chinatown bus operations in New York and Philadelphia were the primary targets.
Hersman said Feb. 6 that the investigative agency has found bad maintenance and fatigued drivers repeatedly after fatal crashes over a number of years.
“Is it the cost of business for these companies to get put out of service?” said Hersman, whose board investigates transportation accidents and makes recommendations for safety improvements.
FMCSA is using new authority from a transportation law Congress approved last year, DeBruyne said. The agency has twice suspended or revoked operating authority for companies that obstruct safety investigations, he said.
FMCSA conducted special training for its top investigators last month, DeBruyne said. They’re equipped with new tools and strategies to improve the agency’s ability to remove unsafe companies from the road, he said.
The FMCSA is doing a thorough analysis of its bus industry oversight, the Transportation Department said in February.
The agency’s 54 bus investigators are being sent out in teams of two, paired with a federal or state vehicle inspector, to look at companies and equipment beginning April 1, according to a summary released by the American Bus Association April 8. They’re targeting 250 companies with poor safety records, especially those with driving violations, as well as companies with no known place of business or maintenance facilities, the Washington-based trade group said.
The regulator’s approach to safety auditing is flawed because it inspects paperwork rather than buses, Jasny said.
“It’s very much catch as you can,” Jasny said. “You get a few, but most of them slip through the holes in the net. Companies only get caught after they’ve had a catastrophic crash.”
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