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NTSB: FMCSA had bad actor bus, truck carriers on radar but failed to act, prevent fatal crashes

This Mi Joo Tour & Travel bus, upon encountering ice, slid off the roadway, struck a roadside barrier, went down an embankment, overturned and came to rest at the bottom of a steep slope. Nine of the 41 occupants died. The driver and 37 passengers were injured. The accident was one of four cited in a National Transportation Safety Board report calling for an audit of the FMCSA’s oversight efforts. (Associated Press: Tim Trainor)

The Trucker Staff

11/7/2013

WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board Thursday recommended an audit of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s oversight processes in light of four deadly crashes that the NTSB investigated, saying that the accidents might have been prevented if the FMCSA had not overlooked operational and equipment deficiencies involving the carriers during compliance reviews.

“The findings from these investigations raise serious questions about the oversight of motor carrier operations,” the NTSB said in a news release.

The NTSB also opened the investigative dockets, including more than 2,100 pages, from four recent commercial vehicle accidents. “Together, these accidents resulted in 25 deaths and 83 injuries. In each accident, investigators identified safety deficiencies and noted red flags that had been present prior to the crashes but were unnoticed or were not acted upon by FMCSA regulators until after the crashes,” the release stated.

“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 A.P. Hersman. “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.”

“Increasing safety to save lives and prevent bus and truck crashes is at the heart of our mission at FMCSA,” the agency said in response to the NTSB recommendation. “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. We have also brought together key safety, industry and enforcement organizations to ask for their help and support our efforts. 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.”

The agency said it had taken a number of unprecedented steps to improve its oversight, including:

• Conducting a top-to-bottom analysis of its current passenger carrier oversight system to look for opportunities to strengthen its authority and practices.

• Bringing together key safety, industry and enforcement organizations to ask for their help and support in the department's work to transform the safety culture throughout the motorcoach industry.

• Expanding efforts to educate the public and tour industry on safe motorcoach travel, and

• Putting FMCSA inspectors and auditors through specialized training aimed at investigating key areas of operations at motorcoach companies deemed to be high-risk carriers. 

The NTSB said it “found concerns with both the thoroughness and quality of FMCSA’s compliance reviews and their increasing reliance on focused compliance reviews, which examine only a limited portion of the commercial operation.”

In a 14-page letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the NTSB discussed the four crashes and came to the same basic conclusion in all four cases: While the FMCSA had conducted Compliance Reviews on all four carriers, the review targeted a specific area of deficiency usually identified by a poor Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) and as a result missed other areas of deficiencies that might have prevented the accidents.

Consequently, the NTSB said it is issuing two safety recommendations to the Department of Transportation, calling on it “to conduct audits on these oversight activities and to address any problems uncovered by the audits.”

The NTSB also said in its letter to Foxx that FMCSA investigators working in the field “may need additional training, more specific work procedures and better oversight.”

The four crashes include:

Pendleton Ore., Dec. 30, 2012: A motorcoach operated by Canadian carrier Mi Joo Tour & Travel, upon encountering ice, slid off the roadway, struck a roadside barrier, went down an embankment, overturned and came to rest at the bottom of a steep slope. Nine of the 41 occupants died. The driver and 37 passengers were injured.

The post-crash investigation by NTSB and the Oregon State Police found the bus had been traveling too fast for conditions.

Immediately after the crash, FMCSA declared Mi Joo Tour & Travel an “imminent hazard” and issued the company an out-of-service order. However, during its most recent precrash safety compliance review of the company, FMCSA had rated the carrier “Satisfactory.”

San Bernardino, Calif., Feb. 3, 2013: A motorcoach, operated by the Mexican-owned motor carrier Scapadas Magicas, was returning from a trip to Big Bear Resort and was traveling westbound on State Route 38 in a mountainous area of the San Bernardino National Forest. As the motorcoach continued downhill, the driver had difficultly slowing and lost control of the bus. The motorcoach collided with the rear of a passenger car, crossed into the opposing lane of travel, struck an embankment, and overturned. The motorcoach then collided with a Ford pickup truck towing a utility trailer. The motorcoach and the pickup truck were redirected into the westbound lanes, where the bus rolled upright, struck a boulder, and came to rest blocking both lanes of the highway. As a result of the crash, 7 motorcoach passengers were killed, the driver and 11 passengers were seriously injured, and 22 other passengers received minor-to-moderate injuries. The passenger car’s three occupants were injured, and the pickup truck driver died as a result of the crash.

The NTSB wrote that although FMCSA had conducted compliance reviews of Scapadas Magicas and documented “numerous vehicle violations” in roadside inspections, the most recent investigation before the crash didn’t include inspections of any vehicles.

Following the crash, FMCSA declared Scapadas Magicas an “imminent hazard” and issued an OOS order. Yet, less than a month before the fatal crash, on January 9, 2013, the FMCSA had completed a full compliance review of Scapadas Magicas because the company had an “alert” indicating vehicle maintenance problems. “FMCSA rated the company as ‘Satisfactory,’ although no motorcoaches were inspected during the review and many of the business records were not inspected because they were at the company’s principal place of business in Tijuana, Mexico,” NTSB stated.

In its letter to Foxx, NTSB noted that there were “mechanical deficiencies for all six brakes, leading to the driver’s loss of control as the motorcoach went downhill.” They also found that Scapadas Magicas had neither a systematic preventative maintenance program nor any written safety policies for its drivers, nor a system for telling when vehicles needed to be serviced. The carrier’s operations manager, who wasn’t a licensed mechanic, signed off on orders for completed maintenance work, NTSB stated.

Elizabethtown, Ky., March 2, 2013: A commercial truck operated by Highway Star, a motor carrier based in Troy, Mich., was traveling northbound on Interstate 65 at about 67 mph when it approached slowing traffic ahead. Despite a straight roadway with a clear line of sight, the truck driver did not brake until just prior to colliding with the rear of a 1999 Ford Expedition, which had slowed for a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Upon impact, the Ford burst into flames, killing six of its eight occupants.

FMCSA had completed an oversight review of Highway Star 5 days before the crash. It was a focused, non-rated compliance review that did not examine records related to driver compliance with Hours of Service regulations.

NTSB said “FMCSA conducted this focused review, rather than a full compliance review, even though each of the prior reviews of the company had found driver-related violations, and the carrier had a longstanding history of driver HOS violations.

“ Following the March 2013 crash, FMCSA completed a full compliance review of the motor carrier, which resulted in an ‘Unsatisfactory’ rating. It then, post-crash, issued an ‘imminent hazard’ OOS order to Highway Star for not monitoring driver HOS, permitting drivers to falsify records-of-duty status, and failing to preserve records of duty.”

Murfreesboro, Tenn., June 13, 2013: A truck operated by the Louisville, Ky.-based carrier H&O Transport, collided with eight other vehicles that had slowed in the eastbound traffic lanes of Interstate 24. The collisions caused two fatalities in a passenger vehicle that overturned and was consumed by fire, as well as injuries to six occupants of other vehicles involved in the crash.

“The driver was in violation of the HOS rules at the time of the accident and had numerous previous violations. In addition, several other drivers had similar violations, many of which the FMCSA was aware through roadside inspections and previous compliance reviews,” the NTSB stated.

“Despite H & O Transport’s history of HOS violations, FMCSA only conducted a ‘focused’ compliance review in 2011 which was ‘non-rated’ and allowed the motor carrier to operate. Following the accident, a post-crash compliance review conducted by FMCSA rated the carrier as ‘conditional,’ which again allowed them to continue to operate,” according to the NTSB release.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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