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Tour Bus Firm Was Proud of Safety Record

Times Staff Writers

In 15 years of chauffeuring groups of senior citizens, foreign travelers and out-of-state tourists throughout California, Starline Sightseeing Tours had no major accidents on its record until Friday’s tour bus tragedy, state transportation officials and company executives said.

However, the Hollywood-based company, which operates 40 buses and vans, was criticized by the California Highway Patrol in 1984 for “numerous mechanical safety defects” including “serious brake system defects.” The bus that crashed Friday was a 1985 model not covered by that inspection.

Company officials said the bus, a 50-seat German-made Neoplan, passed a CHP inspection when it was delivered to the company last October.

Officials Shocked

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The accident, which took the lives of at least 18 senior citizens, shocked officials of the long-established company, which prided itself on a good safety record.

“There have been small incidents such as hitting a car in a parking lot but there hasn’t been anything like this,” said Shoeleh Sapir, one of the company’s partners.

Company officials said the driver of the bus, Ernst A. Klimeck, 48, had been leading tour groups for about a year and had no previous accidents or traffic citations. Like other Starline drivers, they said, he underwent a series of background checks as well as physical and psychological exams before he was hired.

In accord with company procedure, he was required to go on at least one practice drive through the Sierra route before he was permitted to drive it with passengers, Sapir said.

The company’s buses have traveled the route more than a thousand times, she said.

The bus that plunged from the roadway was part of a fleet of buses and vans used to ferry 500,000 tourists a year through California and Nevada, said Sapir, who with her two partners purchased Starline in 1976. Sapir manages the company’s administrative and booking offices in Hollywood.

No Citations in Files

George Farnham, a spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles, which keeps records of equipment violations found on such buses, said a check of current DMV files shows no problems with the Starline fleet. The files contain no citations for faulty equipment for the company, he said.

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In 1984, however, the California Highway Patrol, which routinely inspects buses, criticized the company’s maintenance operations and recommended to the state Public Utilities Commission that its operating permit not be renewed, according to documents on file with the PUC in San Francisco.

“The inspection disclosed numerous mechanical safety defects and resulted in 6 of 13 buses inspected being placed out of service for imminently hazardous violations,” a CHP officer wrote the PUC on June 14, 1984.

The letter said there were “serious brake system defects” in five of the six buses that were cited.

“The overall condition of the buses inspected reflects the lack of an effective preventive maintenance program, and required maintenance records are not current,” the letter said.

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Problems Corrected

Records show that the permit was renewed in October, 1984, after the company corrected the problems to the state’s satisfaction.

When the bus involved in Friday’s accident was put into service in October, CHP officers inspected it at the company’s Santa Fe Springs bus yard, company general manager Ben Olandj said.

“It would not have passed inspection if there had been major problems,” a CHP spokesman in Los Angeles said.

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Such public carrier buses are inspected when they are new, the spokesman said, and then are usually inspected annually by the CHP, unless there is a special problem with either the bus or the company that would require more frequent inspections.

One of the newer vehicles in a fleet that company officials say averages less than 5 years old, the 1985 Neoplan was a luxury, air-conditioned bus equipped with seat belts.

Company Has Grown

Founded in 1935 and known as the Riverside Bus Co. before Sapir and partners Vahid Sapir and Farid Sapir took it over, the company has grown in recent years from a small-scale bus company to one of the more successful firms in the highly competitive tour bus field. It has been in the charter bus business for 15 years, Shoeleh Sapir said.

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In addition to the charters, the company, whose booking office is located on the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard frequented by tourists, offers 14 different tours in California and Nevada, such as drives past the homes of celebrities and to places such as San Diego.

According to records on file with the PUC, Starline had assets of more than $3.5 million in 1985. The company is insured for at least $5 million, a PUC official said.

Competitors said it is a well-run company that aggressively pursues business.

“They run good equipment,” said Jim Federman, president and owner of Arrow Coach Lines, a Los-Angeles based competitor. Starline “maintains their buses,” he said.

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21 Lawsuits

Los Angeles Superior Court records show that, since 1977, at least 21 lawsuits have been filed against Starline Sightseeing Tours, including at least seven personal injury suits filed by people involved in traffic accidents with Starline buses.

The lawsuits appeared to be routine for a transportation company and several of the cases were settled through arbitration for less than $25,000, according to the records.

Although the safety record of tour buses is spotted by some highly publicized accidents, industry leaders have consistently defended its safety record.

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“We have a very good record,” said Phil Boucher, general manager of Grayline Tours of Los Angeles, one of the industry’s largest companies. “You can consider it a safe industry.”

String of Accidents

In recent years, however, a string of accidents throughout the nation has left scores dead and injured. In 1980, a tour bus plunged into a ravine in Jasper, Ark., killing 20 people and injuring a dozen others.

In December, 1984, the death of a Long Beach high school student in the crash of a chartered bus in Utah led to a call for state legislation requiring seat belts on school and charter buses. Although many late model buses have seat belts, there currently is no law requiring them and many older buses are not equipped with them.

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Eight months earlier, a chartered bus crashed during an Orange County school-sponsored ski trip to Utah, killing two students and injuring more than a dozen others.

Times staff writers David Holley, Patt Morrison and Rita Pyrillis in Los Angeles County and Dan Morain in San Francisco contributed to this story.


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