Investigators continue working the scene of a fatal tour bus crash near Yucaipa, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
UPDATE 5:44 p.m. The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday it has not yet conducted a mechanical inspection on the tour bus involved in a deadly crash. Lead investigator Robert Accetta said in a press conference that his team has to finish inspecting the other vehicles involved in the crash before they can begin the methodical and tedious process of examining the bus. The NTSB hopes to begin that process on Wednesday.
Federal records from the Department of Transportation indicate that while the bus that crashed had been cited four times in the last two years for safety violations, in January it received a satisfactory rating, the highest possible.
UPDATE 8:35 a.m. Federal officials on Tuesday are poring over the tour bus involved in a deadly accident that killed seven and injured dozens of others near Yucaipa, in the mountains east of Los Angeles.
Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said they’re inspecting the condition of the brakes, among other things. The bus was moved from the site of the accident in San Bernardino County to a secure facility on Monday.
“We will look at whether there’s evidence that they were working, if all the components are there, if it looks like they were properly maintained and adjusted, and we’re going to do the same thing with the engine, the transmission – all the other working components of the bus,” he said.
Weiss said some buses, depending on when they were manufactured, have a “bus version” of an airplane “black box” – described as a sort of electronic memory module that stores information.
“So we’ll see if this bus has one and if so, we’ll send it back to our laboratory in Washington to download,” he said.
Investigators also plan to go to the headquarters of the motor carrier in National City, south of San Diego, to look at records and interview officials.
The bus racked up four safety citations in the last two years. But Weiss said the NTSB doesn’t have the ability to “pull a bus” off the road.
“However, the board’s reputation for thoroughness and fairness is one that when we make a recommendation, 80 percent of the time, it’s taken,” the spokesman said. “So even though we don’t have enforcement power, our recommendations are taken very seriously.”
NTSB makes recommendations based on inspections to improve safety to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. That organization regulates buses and has the ability to pull the licenses of carriers.
PREVIOUSLY: Safety regulators repeatedly found violations on the bus that careened off a mountain road in Yucaipa on Sunday, killing seven people and injuring more than 30. The National City company that operated the bus, Scapadas Magicas, was on a watch list the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration maintained on its website.
The website indicates that the bus had been the subject of four safety citations in the last two years – including repeated citations for faulty brakes.
In October 2011, the violation was insufficient brake linings. A month later, it was cited for insufficient warning devices.
In May of last year, regulators wrote up the bus for loose or missing wheel fasteners and out-of- service brakes; in July, it was cited again for out-of-service brakes and defective or missing axle positioning parts.
It’s unclear whether Scapadas Magicas completed repairs – and whether inspectors followed up. But the company did maintain an overall satisfactory review from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Transportation officials maintain that, in general, bus travelers are safe. Cullen Sisskind is manager of the California Highway Patrol's Motor Carrier Safety Program. He manages the agency’s program with federal authorities to keep unsafe commercial vehicles off the road in California. He says the Highway Patrol inspects flagged commercial vehicles at least once a year and shares its findings with the Department of Transportation’s website. Sisskind denies any breakdown in a program he says is very effective.
That said, it's not easy to find information about which long-distance buses are safe. Dan Ronan works with the American Bus Association, which represents more than 1,000 motor coach companies in North America. He says that even as a safety investigator, he finds it hard to navigate the Department of Transportation website.
"If you’re an average person and you’re sitting down to look at this thing, it’s gonna confuse you,” he said.
He hopes it’ll get easier for consumers to figure out bus safety records. Last summer, President Obama signed a bill that requires the Department of Transportation to simplify its rating system and to consider posting results on buses instead of on websites.