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 today 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 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.

The safety board released a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, dated Nov. 5, seeking a comprehensive audit of FMCSA’s company oversight processes that identifies why inspectors aren’t finding all safety violations or doing complete, accurate reviews.

Review Promised

“We are very proud of FMCSA’s aggressive efforts to take unsafe truck and bus companies off the road,” Meghan Keck, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “That said, there is always more we can do to improve safety, and we will carefully review the NTSB’s recommendations.”

The FMCSA oversees more than 525,000 truck and motorcoach companies with about 350 safety inspectors. State and federal officials conduct more than 3.5 million truck and bus inspections across the U.S. each year.

In the past three years, the FMCSA has more than tripled the number of unsafe companies and drivers shut down through more comprehensive investigations, spokeswoman Marissa Padilla 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.

Records Unchecked

The FMCSA issued 47 shutdown orders last year for truck and bus companies, compared with 10 in 2011. So for this year, the agency has taken 51 bus companies out of service, according to an agency fact sheet.

Scapadas Magicas LLC was shut down 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.

Paperwork Violations

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.

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.

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.

The NTSB’s recommendations may help fix inconsistencies in the way safety investigations are conducted in different areas of the country, said Peter Pantuso, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Bus Association. States with lax enforcement become safe havens for bad operators, he said.

“We operate a national system with the ability to move from place to place,” Pantuso said. “For someone who operates under the radar, it offers them a potential home.”

Editors: Bernard Kohn and Allan Holmes.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net.

Tags: bus, safety, usa
Photo Credit: On Monday, February 4, 2013, the investigation continues at the scene of a tour bus crash in Yucaipa, California, that happened on Sunday, killing at least eight people and injuring more than 30 others. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times