The head of the National Transportation Safety Board chastised federal regulators Thursday for lax oversight of the tour bus and commercial trucking industry, citing in particular a deadly San Bernardino County bus crash in which the driver lost control, struck an embankment and overturned.
In the Feb. 3 accident on California Highway 38, investigators found that all of the brakes on the bus were defective in some way, and that if the vehicle had been stopped for a roadside inspection, it surely would have been removed from service.
Instead, on that Sunday evening, the bus carried 40 passengers returning to Mexico after a day trip to Big Bear. The bus, owned and operated by Scapadas Magicas, was heading downhill near Yucaipa and the driver had difficulty slowing the vehicle. The bus clipped a Saturn sedan and rolled onto its side, then struck an oncoming pickup truck.
Seven passengers on the bus were killed and nearly a dozen were seriously injured. The driver of the truck also died.
In January, shortly before the crash, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspectors had completed a review of Scapadas Magicas, based in National City on the Mexican border.
The company had an "alert" indicating vehicle maintenance problems, according to the NTSB. But no buses and few business records were inspected, because they were in Tijuana, where much of the company's business was conducted .
The NTSB found that Scapadas Magicas had been deemed by regulators to be an "imminent hazard" and was slapped with an out-of-service order only after the deadly crash.
It was not clear if Scapadas Magicas is still in business.
A woman who answered the telephone number previously associated with the company said they still offer bus transportation to popular Southern California destinations such as Disneyland and several Indian casinos. But the woman, who declined to provide her name, denied any association with Scapadas. She said the operator's current name is Acetour.
In a statement Thursday, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman urged regulators to "crack down before crashes occur, not just after high-visibility events," and noted a record of safety violations at bus and trucking companies that later had fatal accidents.
"Our investigators found that in many cases the poor performing company was on FMSCA's radar for violations, but was allowed to continue operating and was not scrutinized closely until they had deadly crashes," Hersman said.
In recommending an audit of the agency's oversight process, NTSB officials released more than 2,000 pages of documents from investigations into fatal accidents conducted over the past year. In total, NTSB officials said, 25 people were killed and 83 were injured.
Each investigation revealed safety deficiencies and signs of problems that were evident before the crashes, yet went unnoticed or weren't addressed by regulators, the NTSB said.
The regulatory agency — with about 350 inspectors responsible for overseeing 525,000 trucking and motorcoaching companies across the country — defended itself Thursday, saying in a statement that "increasing safety to save lives and prevent bus and truck crashes is at the heart of our mission."
Regulators said the agency has launched a comprehensive review of its oversight system and procedures, and that they are "continuously looking for new ways to make our investigation methods even more effective so we shut down unsafe companies before a crash occurs."
The agency said it had become more aggressive in recent years in shutting down unsafe operators. In 2012, regulators issued 47 of the "imminent hazard orders" that immediately shut down a company; only 10 were issued the year before.
This year, regulators have issued 26 out-of-service orders against bus companies and revoked the operating authority of 25 others found to have an unsatisfactory safety rating. Eleven trucking companies have also been shut down.
Hersman said the agency "deserves recognition for putting bad operators out of business."
It was the companies cleared by regulators but ended up in the deadly crashes that were a source of concern to NTSB officials.
In addition to the San Bernardino County crash, NTSB officials referred to fatal bus and trucking accidents in Elizabethtown, Ky., in March, Murfreesboro, Tenn., in June andPendleton, Ore., in December of last year.
Times staff writer Richard Marosi contributed to this report.