Federal Safety Regulators Criticized for Missing Bus Safety Hazards

By | November 8, 2013

U.S. bus regulators are overlooking or not catching serious safety hazards before fatal crashes and need to change their auditing practices, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration repeatedly has known about deficiencies before deadly fatal accidents and not shut carriers down until afterward, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement that summarized a board investigation.

The report reinforces what board officials have said is a years-long pattern of lax oversight before accidents and some bus companies treating safety citations and temporary orders to take vehicles off the road as costs of doing business.

“They need to crack down before crashes occur, not just after high visibility events,” Hersman said. “Our investigators found, that in many cases, the poor performing company was on FMCSA’s radar for violations, but was allowed to continue operating.”

The safety board released a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, dated Nov. 5, that asks for a comprehensive audit of FMCSA’s company oversight process, identifying why inspectors aren’t finding all safety violations and why the agency hasn’t done complete and accurate reviews.

The NTSB is investigating two bus crashes on the West Coast that killed 17 people in all. Both companies were given clean reviews prior to their crashes and when FMCSA later inspected them were found to have serious safety violations.

Records Unchecked

Scapadas Magicas LLC was shut down by the federal agency after one of the National City, California-based company’s three buses careened down a mountain road because the driver couldn’t stop, crashing into a car and a pickup truck on Feb. 3. Seven bus passengers died, as did the truck driver, and 36 people were injured, according to the NTSB.

The FMCSA had completed a compliance review of the company less than a month before the crash, giving it a top “satisfactory” rating, meaning the company was free to carry passengers without restriction, the NTSB said.

No buses were inspected during the review, according to the safety board report. Many company records also went unchecked because they were in offices in Tijuana, Mexico, not at the site auditors visited.

Scapadas Magicas won its rating even though FMCSA inspectors found brake flaws, evidence of drivers working excessive hours, and failed alcohol and drug tests, according to documents Bloomberg News obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Company owners 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 records show.

Paperwork Violations

FMCSA officials said in April that the violations found before the California crash were mostly paperwork infractions not deemed widespread enough to take the company off the road.

In the past three years, the FMCSA has more than tripled the number of unsafe companies and drivers shut down through more comprehensive investigations, Marissa Padilla, an agency spokeswoman, said today in an e-mailed statement.

The agency has also brought together safety, industry and enforcement organizations to ask for help, she 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,” Padilla said.

The NTSB also cited the agency’s shortcomings related to a Dec. 30, 2012 crash involving Canadian carrier Mi Joo Tour & Travel in Pendleton, Oregon. The bus slid on ice, off the roadway and down an embankment. A subsequent review found the driver had been on duty 92 hours over a seven-day period.

Truck Crashes

The shortcomings extended to truck safety, according to the safety board’s report.

In March, a truck operated by Troy, Michigan-based Highway Star failed to brake in time before crashing into stopped traffic, killing six people in a Ford Expedition that caught fire.

The FMCSA had completed a limited review five days before the crash without inspecting the company’s compliance with regulations on how long drivers could be on duty, even though it had been cited before for such violations. After the fatal crash, Highway Star was declared an imminent hazard to public safety because it hadn’t monitored driver hours and falsified records.

The regulator also conducted a limited review of H&O Transport, a Louisville, Kentucky-based trucker with a history of driver violations, before one of its rigs plowed into eight other vehicles in slowed traffic in June. Two people died after their vehicle overturned and caught fire.

Editors: Bernard Kohn, Elizabeth Wasserman

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