For more than three weeks, federal safety investigators have pored over the crushed wreckage of a Starline Sightseeing Tour bus for clues to why it plunged into the icy Walker River, killing 21 elderly residents of Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
While the cause of the May 30 accident in Mono County has not been announced, there are disturbing signs of widespread safety problems within the charter bus industry, problems brought on by economic pressures and relaxed government regulation.
A Times investigation of the industry found that buses transporting tourists travel state and national highways virtually unfettered by regulation and that the problems have been building for a decade.
Factors in Accidents
Driver error or fatigue, improper maintenance, faulty brakes or other mechanical problems contributed to eight crashes that killed 84 passengers and injured more than 200 others over that period, according to the federal National Transportation Safety Board.
The board is now investigating the Mono County accident, even while government and tour bus industry officials move on a broader front to strengthen driver licensing and bus safety regulations.
Among the industry's key problems, uncovered in public records and interviews with dozens of government officials, bus industry operators and drivers:
- Deregulation. Some experts say that the relaxation of state and federal regulations has allowed virtually anyone meeting minimal requirements to enter the market.
"Before deregulation, there were fewer companies," said Bob Bishop of the American Bus Assn.'s safety committee and an executive of a large Phoenix-based charter firm operating in the West. "Now the competition is fierce. There are a lot of companies that are here today and gone tomorrow. They cut corners, usually on maintenance and (driver) training. . . . Don't pay their drivers well (and they) push their drivers beyond (Department of Transportation driver) limits."
- Bus driver traffic records. Department of Motor Vehicles record-keeping on the estimated 60,000 tour bus drivers in California is incomplete. Nor does the DMV notify a bus company when one of its driver's licenses is suspended.
Complicating the situation are instances where drivers may work in several states with different licenses or in the same state with licenses issued under different names. Traffic citations issued in Nevada, for example, are not routinely reported to California officials.
- Bus driver working conditions. By DOT regulations, bus drivers are not supposed to be behind the wheel for more than 10 hours a day or 70 hours a week without overtime pay. But a number of Los Angeles-based charter drivers told The Times they are often pushed to drive 15 to 20 hours without rest.
"I'm in the driver's seat for 20 hours at a time," complained one driver, who insisted on anonymity. "(The company) sets the number of hours a trip is supposed to take, if you take longer, they hassle you to reduce your (logged) hours. Nobody does the hours that the federal regulations require. . . ."
- Bus Safety. Tour buses are in a class by themselves when it comes to inspections by government agencies. While all school buses in California, for example, must be safety-checked each year, tour buses are checked randomly at roadside inspections and at once-a-year terminal inspections by the California Highway Patrol.
CHP officials estimate that they check only about 10% of the tour buses operating in the state every year.
Out of Service
On May 17, the CHP conducted a roadside check of 44 buses on a stretch of Interstate 80 east of Sacramento. Only three buses fully complied with federal and state regulations; 21 were "red tagged" out of service as unsafe to continue on to Reno.
- Fragmented regulatory efforts. Generally, state and federal agencies govern the charter bus industry depending on where the buses operate. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Interstate Commerce Commission have jurisdiction over buses that travel across state lines. The state Public Utilities Commission, California Highway Patrol and the DMV, meanwhile, regulate those bus trips that run exclusively within California.
State and federal officials say they do not coordinate efforts to track the bus industry and frequently do not even use the authority they have to suspend bad operators.
Even within California, there appears to be little coordination among the three principal agencies dealing with charter buses.
- Lack of enforcement. For example, the Department of Transportation has 130 inspectors nationally to cover 216,000 interstate truck carriers and 4,000 interstate bus carriers. Less than 2% of these vehicles are inspected each year.
Industry officials say Congress' deregulation of interstate carriers in 1982 led to a nearly three-fold increase in the number of bus companies in three years--from 1,500 in 1982 to nearly 4,000 last year.
The motivation behind deregulation was to force down prices and improve service by increasing competition. And although bus industry officials admit that passenger fares have been lowered, they say deregulation also has had other unexpected effects.
"Deregulation changes the way operators operate; before they were order takers, now they must market and merchandise," said Wayne Smith, executive director of the 2,000-member United Bus Operators of America. "It's easy to get into business, leasing companies enable you to get equipment at a cheap price."
Some Companies Fail
But if deregulation has led to a proliferation in the number of charter companies, the increased competition has also led to the demise of many firms. Smith estimated that as many as 400 bus companies went out of business in the last year.
One such company is AAA Charters Inc. a five-bus company based in Los Angeles. AAA president and principal owner, Dave A. Leland, blamed the company's demise on escalating insurance costs and cutthroat competition. The company filed for bankruptcy in November and creditors have since forced it into liquidation, records show.
"Every small operator out there has to push it hard. You push your drivers and your equipment and you know you're competing with a lot of bandits (unlicensed operators) who are bootlegging trips to Vegas or Reno without an ICC ticket," said Leland, who has been in the tour bus business for the past decade as a driver and owner. He said the number of "bandits" is increasing because it is easy to step around the law by leasing buses to a tour group that pays the driver directly.
"Mostly, I ran by the book, but sometimes we cheated," Leland said, describing 15-hour days behind the wheel. Drivers usually earn less than $6 an hour and are paid only for driving time. To fool safety inspectors, drivers often carry two sets of driver's logs or falsify them to skirt maximum allowable driving times, he asserted.
Most Seen Observing Rules
Jack Burkhart, safety director of the American Bus Assn., contends that such operators represent a minority within the industry.
"Our industry has been very safe in the past. . . . Only a small percentage of the industry is not following the rules," Burkhart said.
In California since 1975, the number of licensed tour bus operators has grown from 400 to nearly 3,000. The PUC estimates there are 30,000 charter buses traveling the state's highways.
Until the mid-1970s, charter bus companies applying for PUC authority had to show not only that their equipment met safety standards and that their drivers were properly licensed, but also that they could financially survive. The state specified routes, regulated fares and limited the number of companies in operation.
PUC commissioners felt that the earlier monopolistic regulations were unfair to potential newcomers. PUC Executive Director Victor Weisser said the reasoning at the time was that poorly run companies would disappear as competition grew.
Response by Legislators
Despite the PUC's relaxation, Weisser argues that the agency remains committed to regulation. He notes, however, that tour buses with ICC licenses can continue to operate in California even if they are suspended by the PUC.
In recent weeks, state lawmakers have blamed this hands-off approach for allowing shoddy and potentially dangerous buses on the road in California. This criticism is focused primarily on the PUC.
This week, the PUC--smarting from the recent criticism--is scheduled to consider a moratorium on new charter company permits until the agency can determine the effectiveness of current regulations. Commissioners also may consider setting minimal financial and safety requirements for these bus companies.
The Starline bus crash, although technically within the ICC jurisdiction since the trip was an interstate gambling charter from Santa Monica to Reno and back, has been singled out by Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz, (D-Sepulveda) as revealing "serious flaws" in the regulatory system.
Need for Protection Cited
"The public is not being protected. . . . What you have here is full-scale deregulation without a commensurate increase in inspections," Katz said in an interview. Katz and Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) are spearheading legislative efforts to tighten controls over the industry.
"A lot of people are driving who shouldn't be," said Katz, who also is critical of the DMV's data-gathering abilities and its failure to pass driver record information along to other bus regulatory agencies or to the companies.
Katz was referring to Ernst A. Klimeck, the 47-year-old Starline driver who was behind the wheel of the bus that crashed May 30. Klimeck had amassed eight speeding tickets in three years, two of them within three months of the fatal crash. He also had been cited for driving with a suspended driver's license and had failed to appear in court four times in California and Nevada in response to traffic citations.
Starline co-owner Vahid Sapir told The Times shortly after the accident that Klimeck is "a clean-cut, courteous, on-time person" who "has a couple of tickets. If he had been a reckless driver we would have heard."
Checking of Records
Sapir, who has owned the 50-vehicle Starline fleet for 18 years, said he routinely checks the records of prospective drivers before they are hired, and that the drivers are then tested and trained. "If they get a ticket the day after we hire them we don't know a thing about it . . . unless we get a (DMV) report." (DMV supplies driver's records only upon request of the bus companies.)
Klimeck, contacted by The Times, refused to discuss the accident or his driving record.
A Katz aide said that even now--nearly a month after the accident--DMV records still do not show Klimeck's two speeding citations received shortly before the tragedy. He was cited for speeds in excess of 70 m.p.h. twice in Starline buses, once in Nevada in March and again in Fullerton six days before the Walker River accident.
Routinely, the courts do not notify the DMV of traffic violations until after the conviction date is recorded, a process that can take months. According to DMV records, one of Klimeck's four failures to appear in court did not show up for nearly two years. Traffic tickets from other states may never appear on a driver's record because there is no national repository for such information.
By law, the DMV uses a point system to keep track of a driver's performance; a speeding ticket puts one point on the record. Commercial bus and truck drivers can accumulate up to six points in a year, eight over two years and up to 10 over three years before they risk license suspension. The average motorist, by comparison, is allowed only four points a year and up to eight over three years.
Some bad drivers even carry two driver's licenses to avoid detection, which has prompted U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, to propose a standardized national commercial driver's license. The measure also would set minimum driver qualification standards and create a national reporting system to make drivers' records immediately available to police and employers.
Some drivers say that they are under so much pressure that avoiding a speeding ticket is a secondary consideration to meeting timetables.
"The (charter) companies say to you 'drive it or else,' " said Ernest M. Harley, 41, who until recently moonlighted as a charter bus driver after working a 40-hour week driving for the Long Beach Transit Lines. "I've drove buses with bad brakes, bad tires, even a leaking gas tank, but you don't say nothing. The drivers are scared to say anything, they need the work."
Long Duty on Ski Trip
Paid $5.50 an hour, Harley once drove a busload of skiers from Los Angeles to a Cedar City, Utah, relay point, turned the bus over to a relief driver and then with only two hours rest drove a returning bus load of skiers back to Los Angeles. He quit the tour bus job after several years because, "It just got to be too much."
Driver fatigue and "excessive hours of driving" were blamed for the charter ski bus crash that killed two Orange County high school students and injured 43 others in April, 1984, said NTSB senior investigator Frank Ghiorsi. Survivors told investigators they had been riding for more than 11 hours with only a 15-minute rest stop when the bus drifted off the road, spun around and rolled over, hurling victims out the windows and crushing them.
The NTSB accident report said that Samuel L. Peyton, 36, driver of the California Charters bus, told investigators he felt very tired just before the accident, having gone without rest for 18 to 20 hours.
One major concern of the current tour bus industry review is the issue of bus driver qualifications in California.
Strict in California
California, one of the strictest states in this area, requires tour bus drivers to have a Class II license, the same as delivery truck drivers. To qualify, a driver must pass a written test and either test-drive a bus or provide a certificate from his employer stating he can handle such equipment. Drivers must also pass the federal DOT medical examination every two years.
"The DOT exam is fairly stringent," said Kenneth Pierson, chief of DOT's Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety. "For example, diabetics who must inject insulin are excluded."
NTSB chief traffic accident investigator Claude Harris disagrees. He said recent accident investigations have turned up diabetic drivers, drivers with hypoglycemia and "disturbing psychological problems. . . . We're finding questionable medical certifications in such cases."
The mechanical condition of the bus is also a critical safety factor, experts say, and the crush of competition may force smaller, under-funded companies to cut corners on maintenance.
Flaws in the System
Finding those tour buses that are not safe is a hit-and-miss proposition. DOT's Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety has 130 inspectors to monitor 216,000 ICC-licensed trucking firms and 4,000 bus companies. Each year, the bureau "audits" 4,000 carriers to ensure compliance while the DOT funds 23,000 roadside inspections of trucks and buses by state police and highway patrol officers.
Assisted by federal funds, the CHP's Motor Carrier Safety Division conducted 24 roadside inspections of 794 tour buses between June, 1984, and last April. More than half had brake problems and a fourth had faulty tires or wheels. One bus in five was immediately ordered off the highway, CHP records show.
Last year, CHP Assistant Chief Bob Rengstorff said, the CHP inspected 3,298 of the estimated 30,000-plus tour buses legally operating in California.
The latest DOT national accident figures show that in 1984 there were 37,323 bus wrecks involving major damage, injuries and/or fatalities, up from 31,628 the previous year, an 18% increase. DOT's Pierson said that in 1981, the year before the industry was deregulated, the number of accidents was 32,306 and remained at about that figure until 1984. He could not explain the sharp increase.
Lack of Coordination
Although both state and federal regulations govern the tour bus industry--frequently even the same buses--there is little, if any coordinated effort between the two government levels. State officials may, for instance, suspend a carrier's permit, only to see the bus continue on its way with its federal permit in full force.
The mechanical condition of interstate charter buses, operating safety, insurance coverage, driver qualifications and work rules are all regulated by the DOT and the ICC. Either federal agency may suspend the carrier's mandatory ICC license for repeated violation of safety rules.
But they seldom do.
The Department of Transportation once suspended a charter bus operation for repeatedly keeping its drivers on the road longer than legally allowed, said DOT's Pierson. But, he added, "That was 20 years ago. . . . We haven't taken any similar actions recently."
A carrier with an "unsatisfactory" safety record faces a DOT civil fine--the average being $4,000--or a recommendation that the ICC revoke its license, something the ICC has never done.
Looking for Compliance
"Our initial thrust is to achieve compliance, rather than penalize the carrier. We write them . . . and direct that they comply," DOT's Pierson explained.
In California, even when the PUC has acted to suspend a carrier's license, it had "no reliable listing of those carriers whose authority has been suspended or revoked. Consequently, carriers may be operating illegally with unsafe or uninsured vehicles," according to a critical November, 1985, report by the state auditor general.
For mechanical safety compliance, the PUC relies on the CHP's motor carrier inspections.
But while the CHP has 117 inspectors, they not only check out tour buses, but transit, school, farm labor and school pupil activity buses as well. All but the tour buses, however, must by law be inspected, so sightseeing vehicles assume a low priority.
Staffing for Inspections
Another area of criticism, one that state and federal agencies are working to correct, is the understaffing of its highway inspection force. DOT's Pierson said 150 new positions have been budgeted. In addition, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole is seeking $150 million to "fully fund" a two-year-old DOT grant program for state highway patrol motor carrier inspection units.
The PUC has four people--up from only one person four years ago--to make sure that bus companies halt operations when they run into safety or insurance-related problems.
As an illustration of the understaffing, the PUC briefly suspended Starline's operating authority in 1984 because its buses had "numerous mechanical safety defects . . . six of 13 buses inspected being placed out of service for imminently hazardous violations."
Asked if the suspension halted company operations, Weisser told The Times: "There's no way of knowing. I am under the presumption that they did not operate . . . (and) no, I didn't have anyone in front of (Starline's) bus terminal to make sure the buses weren't moving." Weisser said law enforcement would also be told of a company's suspension, but CHP officials said they also could not spare the manpower to ensure compliance.
Regardless of any PUC suspension, a company like Starline could continue operating on its ICC license. In Starline's case, the company's state permit was reinstated when the mechanical defects were corrected, and its PUC and ICC permits were in full force when Klimeck's bus plunged into the Walker River.
'Our industry has been very safe in the past. . . . Only a small percentage of the industry is not following the rules.'
Safety director of the American Bus Assn.
THE WORST TOUR BUS ACCIDENTS
Five of the worst charter bus wrecks investigated by National Transportation Safety Board and/or the California Highway Patrol during the past 10 years.
Location: Near Bridgeport, California.
Type of Trip: Gambling tour to Reno.
Circumstances: Starline Sightseeing Tours bus skidded off a mountain road and into Walker River.
Casualties: 21 dead, 20 injured
Cause: Under investigation by the NTSB and CHP.
Location: Interstate 15, near Paragonah, Utah.
Type of Trip: Orange County high school ski charter.
Circumstances: California Charters, Inc. bus overturned.
Casualties: 2 killed, 43 injured.
Cause: Driver fatigue, according to the NTSB.
Location: Interstate 80, east of Sacramento.
Type of Trip: Ski bus charter.
Circumstances: Two Amador Stage Lines tour buses collided.
Casualties: 3 dead, 79 injured.
Cause: Defective brakes on one bus, according to CHP.
Location: State Route 7, near Jasper, Arkansas.
Type of Trip: Senior citizen charter tour.
Circumstances: Central Texas Bus Lines charter ran off the road.
Casualties: 20 killed, 13 injured.
Cause: Driver fatigue, fuel pump failure, improperly maintained brakes, according to NTSB.
Location: Interstate 680, near Martinez, Calif.
Type of Trip: Choir boys charter.
Circumstances: bus struck a bridge railing, rolled off ramp.
Casualties: 29 killed, 23 injured.
Cause: Driver failed to monitor air pressure gauge and the brakes failed, according to the NTSB.
REGULATING TOUR BUSES
State and federal agencies share regulatory authority over charter bus carriers in California. Generally, federal regulations apply to carriers that operate across state lines. Many bus companies have both state and federal permits.
THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA Agency: Public Utilities Commission (PUC)
The Law: The PUC grants and renews operating permits. The PUC is required to suspend a permit if the company lacks minimum insurance coverage or poses a safety hazard.
How It's Working: PUC officials grant permits based on recommendations from the California Highway Patrol, but have no direct role in determining operator safety. Officials also said they have only a limited staff to ensure that a suspended company actually halts operations. PUC officials say they have no idea how many companies may operate illegally in California.
Agency: Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
The Law: The DMV enforces driving requirements and issues suspensions, based on a point system, when a driver amasses too many moving violations.
How It's Working: When a tour bus driver reaches the maximum allowable points--six in one year, eight in two years or ten in three years--the DMV notifies the driver, but not his employer. The department cannot keep track of violations if a driver has more than one license or licenses listed under different names.
Agency: California Highway Patrol (CHP)
The Law: The CHP conducts safety inspections of tour buses operating in California.
How It's Working: The CHP annually inspect only about 10% of the estimated 30,000 tour buses operating in the state.
THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT
Agency: Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)
The Law: The ICC can suspend a tour bus company's permit if the company fails to meet minimum insurance and safety requirements.
How It's Working: Despite broad powers to suspend or revoke the operating permits of interstate carriers deemed unsafe, ICC officials admit the power is rarely, if ever exercised.
Agency: Department of Transportation (DOT)
The Law: DOT has set more than 2,000 federal "Motor Carrier Safety Regulations" covering everything from accident reporting to maintenance of windshield wipers.
How It's Working: Only a small percentage of the 4,000 tour bus operators are "audited" each year. While it has the authority to revoke ICC licenses, it has not done so in 20 years.