California Bus in Fatal Crash Had Previous Brake Issues

The bus involved in a fatal Southern California crash on Feb. 3 was ordered off the road twice last year for having defective brakes, before the company was cleared by U.S. regulators to operate without restrictions.

U.S. safety records show the bus operator, Scapadas Magicas LLC, received a “satisfactory” rating after its most recent review was completed Jan. 9 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company operated three buses at that time, according to review documents.

The government’s dealings with the National City, California-based company show it isn’t easy to keep defective buses off the road even when there are red flags for regulators. The Transportation Department has taken a harder line on bus enforcement since its largest-ever safety sweep last May, when it shut down 26 so-called Chinatown operators.

The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly seen companies with multiple, known safety violations not being shut down until after a fatal crash, Chairman Deborah Hersman said at a meeting with reporters in Washington today. Bad maintenance and fatigued drivers have been found over and over, Hersman said.

“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. “We’ve got to have regulations with teeth, and the penalties have to be a deterrent.”

Roadside Inspections

The vehicle involved in the California crash had been taken out of service after roadside inspections on May 25 and July 11, according to the FMCSA’s website. The bus’s wheel fasteners were loose or missing on May 25. It had a damaged windshield on the July stop and again on Oct. 16. During the three inspections, police found a total of 17 safety violations, the records show.

The bus was en route to Tijuana, Mexico, after a day trip to San Bernardino National Forest Feb. 3 when it struck a car and a pickup truck before rolling over. The California Highway Patrol initially reported that the crash killed eight people on the bus, and revised that toll to seven.

The highway patrol is examining the bus’s brakes and other mechanical systems, Officer Kevin Reese said in a telephone interview.

“We’re going through the entire braking system,” Reese said. “It tends to be something we look at in a crash like this.”

Systems Checked

Investigators were also examining the bus’s steering and acceleration. It’s too soon to make any conclusions about what happened mechanically, including with the brakes, Reese said.

The NTSB sent investigators and experts in motor-carrier operations to the crash site, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles near Yucaipa, California.

Brakes are the most common reason buses are taken out of service, said Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Greenbelt, Maryland, that works on truck and bus safety.

Typically, state police supervise a bus being towed away or see that an on-site repair is started for a bus with defective brakes, Keppler said. It would be up to the company to file paperwork later to show that the repairs were done, he said.

‘Safety Culture’

A compliance review audits a company’s records and safety management practices to see if they comply with federal law, said Duane DeBruyne, a FMCSA spokesman. “It’s a look at the safety culture of the company, which is then verified by random roadside inspections,” he said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said yesterday he would meet with FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro to go over details of the crash.

DeBruyne deferred questions about the crash to the NTSB and the California Highway Patrol, citing U.S. Transportation Department policy of not commenting on open investigations.

Cracking down on unsafe bus operators made it onto the latest NTSB “most-wanted list” of improvements.

The board last year wrapped up investigations of deadly East Coast wrecks involving so-called Chinatown bus lines. It has put renewed focus on poorly trained drivers, inattentive management and the FMCSA’s inability to close companies with known safety deficiencies.

Nine passengers were killed and 39 others injured in a Dec. 30 bus crash in eastern Oregon involving a Canadian company, Mi Joo Tour & Travel. The driver in that crash had driven 92 hours over a seven-day period, according to the Transportation Department. Federal regulations cap driving time at 70 hours per week.

The Transportation Department declared two of the Coquitlam, British Columbia-based company’s drivers “imminent hazards to public safety” after the accident and banned them from operating a bus or truck in the U.S.