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Stronger Curbs on Tour Bus Drivers Approved by Panel

Times Staff Writer

Proposed legislation to increase curbs on tour bus drivers with poor driving records breezed through its first legislative test Wednesday during an Assembly hearing characterized by sharp criticism of the state agency charged with overseeing the growing sightseeing bus industry.

The measure by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) was approved unanimously by the Assembly Transportation Committee less than two weeks after a tour bus filled with elderly people plunged into the Walker River in Mono County, resulting in 20 deaths and 21 injuries. The victims were returning to Santa Monica from Reno.

The Assembly panel also endorsed more than half a dozen changes to an existing bill authored by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) that, among other things, would mandate annual inspections of all tour buses operating in California. Current law does not require annual inspections, although California Highway Patrol officials have said they spot check tour buses both on the highways and at tour bus company facilities.

Along those lines, the California Highway Patrol announced that it would soon step up unannounced inspections.

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Wednesday’s committee hearing also focused on the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the tour bus industry, which in recent years has grown from about 700 operators to nearly 3,000 in California. Government and industry officials have attributed that four-fold growth to a relaxation of PUC policies in 1982 aimed at stimulating lower prices by increasing competition.

Victor Weisser, PUC executive director, readily admitted Wednesday that the agency lacks the staff necessary to adequately monitor whether tour bus companies are in compliance with state regulations. The state auditor general’s office strongly criticized the PUC in a report issued last year for alleged failure to keep close tabs on the tour bus industry.

Katz and other lawmakers were skeptical of the adequacy of PUC regulations requiring bus tour operators to maintain at least $5 million worth of insurance coverage for each claim. One of Katz’s proposals would increase the minimum coverage operators must carry.

Although the cause of the May 30 bus tragedy is still under investigation, several lawmakers expressed concern that the driver of the Starlines Sightseeing tour bus had accumulated six speeding tickets in California in the last five years. Despite that driving record, Ernst Klimeck was well within current California regulations that would place his bus driving rights in jeopardy only if he had 10 tickets.

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Hayden’s bill, which now moves to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, would reduce the number of speeding tickets that a tour bus driver could receive before facing suspension of his license to four in one year, six in two years or eight in three years, the same as for automobile drivers. Hayden also is pushing for new laws requiring tour bus drivers to pass both written and behind-the-wheel tests before they could obtain a driver’s certificate. Currently, there are no such requirements for tour bus drivers, although such laws apply to school bus operators.

One possible stumbling block to the Hayden bill was an amendment, endorsed by the committee, to boost fines assessed if major mechanical defects are discovered after a bus is stopped by the Highway Patrol.

Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), referring to some buses as “rolling death traps,” proposed that a bus company be fined at a rate of $100 per passenger aboard any bus determined by inspection to have “life-threatening” defects such as bad brakes. The current fine is a flat $100.

Several lawmakers expressed doubt that the stiff fines will remain in the bill.

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Robinson’s proposal followed testimony in which the CHP reported that in 37 surprise roadside inspections since 1982, 22% of the tour buses checked were ordered out of service for various mechanical defects.

CHP Assistant Chief Dwight (Spike) Helmick said that in one inspection the steering wheel of a bus came off in the hands of the driver.

“We suggested the bus go no further,” Helmick told the panel.


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