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Feds investigating tour bus company after Highway 99 crash

Federal regulators have initiated an investigation into whether a local tour bus company should be immediately shut down after one of its buses crashed in the Central Valley, sending 15 passengers to the hospital.

Marissa Padilla, a spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the agency is working with the California Highway Patrol to investigate the cause of Monday's crash.

The bus operator, Huntington Park-based Fronteras del Norte, has logged more than 200 safety violations relating to vehicle maintenance over the last two years, ranging from a broken cab door to defective brakes and insufficient emergency exits, according to records with the FMCSA.

In December, the firm was cited for serious violations including failing to keep vehicle inspection logs and falsifying drivers' hours, records show.

“Based on the violations that were uncovered, we took action to downgrade their safety rating,” Padilla said. The change should become final Feb. 1 after a 45-day appeal period requred by law, she said.

FMCSA, which regulates inter-state passenger coaches, says the firm had been on their “watch list” for some time.

“They have been targeted for a higher level of inspections and more frequent compliance reviews,” which can be used to downgrade its safety rating, Padilla said.

The agency has conducted more than 100 inspections of the bus company’s vehicles in the last 24 months, and launched five in-depth investigations into its records and equipment.

But after one such investigation in March 2013, the company received a “satisfactory” safety rating.

Fronteras del Norte shuttles passengers up and down the West Coast, between Washington state and the Mexican border, according to its website.

According to agency records, Monday night’s crash was the company’s first in the last 24 months.

Just before midnight Tuesday, one of the buses en route to Yakima, Wash., was traveling north on Highway 99 near Tulare when it rear-ended a big rig, said Officer Scott Harris of the California Highway Patrol Visalia area office.

So far, there has been no explanation for why the 60-year-old driver of the bus hit the semi. The driver, who officials say had a valid driver’s license to operate the bus, was not cited at the scene, though Harris said that could change.

Fifteen people, including the driver, were taken to hospitals with minor injuries and another 17 had bumps and bruises but were not transported.

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Twitter: @cmaiduc

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

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