The federal agency that investigates fatal highway crashes slammed on Thursday the U.S. Department of Transportation for “failing” to keep unsafe tour buses off highways.
The sharp comments by the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) come the same day that the board revealed the cause of the deadliest bus crash this year in California.
A February tour bus crash near Big Bear, which killed seven passengers and the driver of a pickup truck, has now been blamed largely on faulty brakes, according to the NTSB’s newly released investigation.
The bus was operated by Scapadas Magicas, a company with a history of serious violations. But even with Scapadas’ poor safety record, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration did not shut them down until after the fatal crash.
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“They have got to put bad carriers out of business before they have crashes, not after,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Hersman added that the FMCSA failed to stop unsafe buses and drivers such as those exposed in a recent NBC4 I-Team investigation, which found numerous intercity bus drivers texting and talking for hours on their phones, while driving on Southern California freeways.
“We have seen far too many fatal accidents involving distraction not to realize that this is a big problem,” Hersman told NBC4.
In its three-month investigation, the I-Team revealed how the FMCSA has cited bus companies for ongoing safety violations, but has allowed them to keep operating, putting everyone on the road at risk.
Case in point is the Scapadas Magicas bus involved in the fatal crash near Big Bear.
The NTSB investigation revealed that at the time of the crash, the bus had “cracked brake drums, brake linings worn below legal minimums … and defective or inoperative brakes.”
The I-Team found the FMCSA cited the same bus for brake problems twice in the months before the crash.
“Why are they on the roads, if they’re not safe? It has the potential for mass killings,” said Brenda Knight, whose uncle Fred Richardson was killed when the Scapadas bus hit his pickup head-on.
The I-Team Investigation exposed other bus companies like Fronteras del Norte, which shuttles passengers more than a million miles a year up and down the west coast. The FMCSA gives Fronteras one of its worst ratings for maintenance of its buses, putting it on “alert” status.
The I-Team found Fronteras continues to run buses with safety problems, like lights that don’t work – the same violations it has been cited for by the FMCSA.
Even Fronteras owner, Joel Lopez, admitted to NBC4 that his aging fleet of buses could be better maintained.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of room for improvement, yeah,” Lopez told NBC4.
The FMCSA says its special “Strike Force” has shutdown numerous unsafe bus companies in 2013.
But the agency couldn’t cite a single example of a company its Strike Force shutdown this year in California, the most populous state.
On Thursday, NTSB chairman Hersman called on U.S. Department of Transportation to audit FMCSA’s program of policing of bus companies, and come up with recommendations to do a better job of keeping unsafe buses off our highways, before they get in crashes.
A statement from the FMCSA issued Thursday 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.”