- - Thursday, November 7, 2013

In an unusually sharp public rebuke, the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday called for an audit of the federal agency overseeing the tour bus industry after a string of high-profile crashes led to more than two dozen deaths in less than a year.

NTSB officials said that inspectors at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ignored safety regulations and violations and failed to respond to clear signs of significant safety problems on the part of bus and truck companies involved in accidents in California, Oregon, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“While FMCSA deserves recognition for putting bad operators out of business, they need to crack down before crashes occur, not just after high-visibility events,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.

The safety board issued two safety recommendations to the Department of Transportation to audit the agency. The FMCSA shut down the companies responsible for the deficiencies, but only after four crashes claimed 25 lives and injured 83 others.

Investigators found that the FMCSA knew about the deficiencies and safety violations but were either unaware of their severity or ignored them outright. Had the violations been acted on, some of the crashes could have been avoided.

“Our investigators found, that in many cases, the poor performing company was on FMCSA’s radar for violations, but was allowed to continue operating and was not scrutinized closely until they had deadly crashes,” the NTSB said.

The FMCSA, established within the Department of Transportation in 2000 to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries, defended its work.

“In the past three years, we have more than tripled the number of unsafe companies and drivers we have taken off the road through more comprehensive investigations,” the agency said in a statement.

The agency said it issued 47 “imminent hazard” — or shutdown — orders to bus and truck companies in 2012, up from just 10 in 2011. So far this year, the agency says it has issued 11 imminent hazard orders to trucking companies and shut down 51 bus companies.

“We are continuously looking for new ways to make our investigation methods even more effective so we shut down these unsafe companies before a crash occurs and will thoroughly review the NTSB’s findings,” the FMCSA statement said.

The four crashes involved two buses on the West Coast and two commercial trucks in the Midwest.

In one crash, federal inspectors gave a California tour bus company safety clearance a month before one of the company’s buses overturned near San Bernardino in February while returning from a ski resort. Seven passengers and a pickup truck driver were killed, 11 passengers were seriously injured and 22 others received lesser injuries. The bus driver told passengers the brakes on the bus had failed.

In a incident in December 2012, a motor coach operated by a Canadian carrier in Pendleton, Ore., slid off an icy roadway, struck a roadside barrier, went down an embarkment and overturned. Of the 41 occupants, 37 were injured, including the driver, and nine people subsequently died from their injuries.

Following the crash, FMCSA declared the carrier, Mi Joo Tour and Travel, an “imminent hazard” and issued the company an out-of-service order.

The NTSB’s findings are “very disturbing and, frankly, deadly for the public,” Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told The Associated Press.

Tour and intercity buses carry about 700 million passengers a year, second only to domestic airlines, which move around 785 million passengers annually.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.



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