In a fundamental shift in the way tour buses are regulated, the federal agency that oversees the companies is implementing a long-sought rule to aggressively go after and shut down those that repeatedly violate safety laws, endangering the lives of tour bus riders as well as motorists and passengers sharing the road.
The move comes a year after a devastating Southern California tour bus crash that left 8 people dead and 32 injured. That crash prompted a year-long NBC4 I-Team investigation which revealed a disturbing pattern of potentially life-threatening tour bus company safety violations.
The crash and the NBC4 investigation were key factors in prompting the change, said Anne Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, in an exclusive interview.
The I-Team investigation “identified some operator behavior that had not been on our radar,” Ferro acknowledged. “That has enabled us to go after certain companies,”
Ferro’s efforts got underway after the terrible crash of February 4, 2013. On the day, a tour bus packed with skiers and snowboarders were heading down the mountain from Big Bear when the brakes went out. The bus careened downhill, colliding with a sedan and a truck before flipping over.
The front end of the bus was crushed, the roof peeled back like a tin can. Body parts and debris littered the highway.
The bus was operated by Scapadas Magicas, a company based near San Diego that had been permitted to continue operating despite previously racking up 59 citations for safety violations.
“That crash provoked and prompted a much deeper look into how we were doing our work,” Ferro said.
Ferro’s agency has been criticized by National Transportation Safety Board for shutting down unsafe bus companies only after a fatal crash. Nationwide as many people take buses to get from one city to another as domestic airlines—700 million passengers ride a year. There were at least 12 major tour bus crashes in California over the past 12 months, an all-time record.
In an effort to remedy the problem, the agency is implementing a “Pattern of Safety Violations” rule, which enables it to shut down a bus company with a history of safety problems. The rule goes into effect February 21. The rule should prompt “more aggressive action against [tour bus operators] more quickly,” Ferro said.
Consumer groups applaud the new rule, and say it’s long overdue. Congress first directed the agency to create such a rule in 2005.
“It has taken way too long for them to come out with this rule, and we’re hopeful that they will use it,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a consumer watchdog group. “There is a need for better consumer information about bus companies.”
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The agency is also asking Congress for money to hire 25 more investigators, in addition to the 300-plus it now employs.
“We have asked Congress for several years for additional resources. Our budget has been flat over the past decade,” Ferro told NBC4.
Even with its limited resources, the agency says it increased efforts to get unsafe buses off the roads in California in 2013. Ferro said it shut down at least 8 bus companies in the state last year, and inspected more than 850 buses at 100 surprise inspection points.
There are 354 tour bus companies permitted by the federal government operating in California, and Ferro conceded there are potentially unsafe bus companies among them that need to be scrutinized more often by federal investigators.
In addition to stricter enforcement of safety violations, the agency is also planning to change its bus company rating system,“ Ferro said.
The government rates bus companies either “Satisfactory” or “Conditional.” Conditional is supposed to mean that the company doesn’t have adequate safety controls in place.
But Scapadas Magicas, which had a long history of serious safety violations, had a “Satisfactory” rating at the time one of its buses crashed a year ago Tuesday.
“Is there a star rating, a red light-green light, is there a number rating?” Ferro said. “What’s the simplest way to do it.”
Ultimately, Ferro says her agency wants to reduce bus crashes—there have been 4 in the last 6 weeks in southern California—and better inform consumers.
“Our job is to ensure that the companies that are operating are operating safely,” Ferro said, “and the passengers also know how to choose a safe operator.”