Unsafe trucks, buses still on the road

Hundreds of tractor-trailer and bus companies ordered to shut down because of federal safety violations ranging from suspended licenses to possible drug use have stayed on the road by using different names, investigators say.

The study by the Government Accountability Office, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, comes a year after an unlicensed charter bus carrying a Vietnamese-American Catholic group blew a retreaded tire installed on a steering axle and skidded off a Texas highway, killing 17 people in one of the nation’s deadliest bus crashes. The use of recapped tires on the steering wheels is a violation of federal regulations, the study stated.

The GAO report found that at least 20 of the roughly 220 commercial bus companies that had been fined and ordered out of service in 2007 and 2008 by federal regulators evaded compliance by setting up shop under a new name, the same tactic used by the bus operator in the Texas crash.

The investigation found offenders in at least nine states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, New York and Washington. The violators owed tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent fines and had scores of violations, from operating without the proper license to failing to test drivers for illegal drugs and alcohol.

Another 1,073 commercial trucking firms are also believed to be possible "reincarnations" after incurring fines and violations, often using the same address, owner name, employees and contact numbers.

In all more than 500 of the tractor-trailer and bus companies were still operating as recently as last month, investigators said.

"These companies pose a safety threat to the motoring public," wrote Greg Kutz, GAO’s managing director for special investigations, noting that there were about 300 fatalities from bus crashes last year. "We believe that these carriers reincarnated into new companies to evade fines and avoid performing the necessary corrective actions."

He warned that the number of violators is likely higher, since the GAO reviews only identified companies based on exact matches of information.

Responding in the report, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said it had put in place new oversight measures after last August’s crash, including a computer matching process to compare new applicants to poor-performing motor carriers dating back to 2003. Newly licensed carriers also must undergo a safety audit within 18 months of approval, a step that helped the agency identify several of the rogue companies cited by the GAO.

Still, the GAO said the federal agency did not yet have full computer capability to identify companies that had used similar addresses and names but not necessarily exact matches of each other. Federal law also is somewhat ambiguous whether FMCSA or the states have the proper enforcement power.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., is proposing a federal standard that would give the FMCSA more power to revoke licenses and impose fines. The measure also would direct FMCSA to improve its computer systems. The measures are included in a proposed six-year, $500 billion highway reauthorization bill that the Obama administration wants delayed for 18 months because of questions about cost.

In the Texas crash, Iguala BusMex Inc. of Houston had received a Transportation Department number and was awaiting approval for a federal license when one of its buses crashed near Sherman on Aug. 8. The company was run by Angel de la Torre, who operated Angel Tours Inc., which was forced to take its vehicles out of interstate service just two months earlier after an unsatisfactory review by federal regulators.

Other cases cited by GAO, without identifying the companies were:

_Inspectors examined a bus operated by a Texas bus company in October 2006, fining it $850 after deeming the vehicle unsafe to drive. A few months later, the company was found illegally transporting 33 passengers from Mexico into the U.S. and was fined $2,380. That same month, a new company opened with two of the same drivers, three of the same vehicles, the same last name for the company owner and virtually identical addresses. The new firm operated for 18 months before it was cited for drug testing violations in September 2008; it was ordered out of service last month.

_An Arkansas motor carrier was cited for nine safety violations in May 2007, including failing to get the proper licenses and maintaining driver qualification files, and fined $3,050. A new company with the same business address, phone number and company officer name started in June 2007, three months before the old carrier was ordered out of service. The new carrier operated for more than a year before it was cited in November 2008 for violations including insufficient registration. A $2,000 fine was assessed; the company was ordered out of service in March.

_A California bus company was cited for 18 safety violations in May 2007, including drivers who refused to take mandatory drug tests, and was fined $2,200. The carrier began to correct some of its violations but failed to pay the fine. A new company with the same phone number, fax number and company officer name was formed in October 2007. FMCSA subsequently ordered the old company out of service in February; the new company was still active as of May.

Friends and family of the Texas victims say more oversight is welcome.

The Rev. Joseph Vu, a priest at the Vietnamese Martyrs Church and vicar for the 30,000 to 35,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the Texas region, arrived at a relief station set up for victims’ families at a church in nearby Denison the day of the August crash.

"I’m going to tell people we don’t blame anybody," he said at the time. "This happened like Katrina, like Challenger. What we can do is pray."


On the Net:

Government Accountability Office: http://www.gao.gov