Safety panel wants motorcoaches not up to US safety rules off roads, out of operation

By Suzanne Gamboa, AP
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NTSB calls for tougher passenger bus scrutiny

WASHINGTON — Passenger buses that aren’t built to U.S. safety standards should be taken off the road, the National Transporation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The recommendation is part of a long list of proposals issued by the NTSB in the wake of a deadly motorcoach crash.

The board recommended three agencies identify the companies operating substandard buses, put the buses out of service and require the companies to cease operations or face losing authority to operate.

The proposals stem from the safety board’s investigation of a January 2008 motorcoach crash in Texas that killed one person. Investigators say the driver — who had 3½ months of experience driving a motorcoach — fell asleep about eight hours into a 10½-hour trip from Monterrey, Mexico, to Houston.

The driver initially told authorities he fell asleep, and later denied it.

NTSB staff ruled out the bus and weather as factors, but they uncovered legal loopholes and enforcement failures that allowed the substandard bus to be on the road. The bus did not meet regulations governing safety features that should be included when the bus is manufactured. No motorcoaches are manufactured in the U.S.

The NTSB found fault with Federal Motor Carrier Administration — which enforces the rules — on several fronts. Among other things, it could have done a compliance review of the bus operator, Capricorn Bus Lines of Houston, but failed to do so. Candice Tolliver, a spokeswoman for the administration, declined comment.

Investigators said Capricorn Bus Lines Inc. leased buses from International Charter Services Inc., to operate in the U.S.

Capricorn had lost its insurance in 2003 because of a fatal accident a year earlier in Mexico.

Capricorn avoided scrutiny by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration because its lease arrangement distanced it from its poor safety record, the NTSB said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives “tacit” approval to such leases, the NTSB determined.

Capricorn got a Texas license plate by having another bus company owner register the Capricorn bus in California. California officials have since made compliance a requirement and the NTSB is recommending other states do the same.

“I think that this accident is the mother of all shell games,” said Robert Sumwalt, one of the three NTSB board members.

Deborah Hersman, NTSB chairwoman, said Capricorn is out of business but has been “reincarnated” as Flores U.S. Bus Lines and is still operating out of Houston. Investigator Gary Van Etten said the bus owner that registered the Capricorn bus in California had done the same for about 20 other bus companies. Van Etten estimated at least 80 or 90 buses are operating as a result.

Among some of the other NTSB proposals:

— Create databases to help state law enforcement identify out-of-compliance buses and take them off the roads.

— Require carriers to certify when they apply for operating authority and once a year thereafter that all owned or leased buses comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

— Update safety videos for night time driving and use latest media, such as the Internet, of to distribute them more widely.

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