Tour Bus In Pala Crash Previously Cited for Brake Problems


The tour bus that crashed Sept. 1 near Pala had been repeatedly cited and placed "out of service" by California Highway Patrol for having brake problems.

The driver of the "Polar Express" bus that crashed on its way from L.A. to Casino Pauma told officials his brakes failed going around a curve. 10 people were injured during the accident.

NBC7 Investigates uncovered documents that show brake problems with the vehicle dating back to 2011, and five unsatisfactory safety inspections in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for the "Polar Express" company that operates the bus.

The documents reveal weaknesses in the system meant to ensure tour buses are kept in safe operating condition.

In March 2012, CHP placed the bus "out of service" for having defective brakes on more than 20 percent of the service brakes on the vehicle. Also during that March 2012 inspection, one of the company's two buses would not start. The vehicle had to be jump-started before CHP could inspect it, the documents show.

Casino Pauma provided a phone number for the "Polar Express" bus company, but a woman reached at the phone number provided said it was a wrong number and the establishment reached was a Chinese food restaurant.

A Casino Pauma spokeswoman later said the family operates both a Chinese food restaurant and the bus company. Repeated other attempts to contact the company were not returned.

Mike Kelley, a CHP motor carrier specialist in L.A., said CHP inspects buses and serves an advisory-only role to the bus company. CHP can make recommendations to the PUC that the company's operating authority not be renewed, and it can forward inspection reports to the District Attorney.

"If we find conditions that rise to the level of the 'out of service' criteria, we place a sticker on the vehicle that says this vehicle is 'out of service,'" Kelley said.

Tour bus passengers can look for that sticker in the windshield of a bus to determine if it is out-of-service or not.

The bus that crashed was not officially out-of-service at the time of the crash, but the bus company had received an "unsatisfactory" ranking during its last inspection on Aug. 27, 2013. CHP inspects both the individual buses and the overall maintenance and safety program of bus companies.

Kelley said the particular bus that crashed and the bus company had numerous equipment violations during past inspections, but this time around, the company failed the safety inspections due to missing driver's licensing records. 

"You can see from 2011 to 2012 the number of violations on the equipment decreased significantly, and continued to 2013 to where now we're down to only seven equipment violations," Kelley said. "Most of those were not directly related to an item on the vehicle being unsafe - it was a missing license plate or a crack in the windshield."

"We're seeing from our perspective in Motor Carrier (unit) improvement each year with the company, but there are still little things," he said.

CHP inspects bus carriers overall maintenance programs twice a year. "Polar Express" received five "unsatisfactory" reports and one "satisfactory" report in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

CHP notes from those inspections state:

"Carrier's preventative maintenance program is not adequate to ensure the vehicles are kept in safe and proper operating condition."  That sentence was notated on inspections in August 2011 and March 2012. In the August 2011 inspection, the company's other bus was placed 'out-of-service' for having "imminently hazardous conditions present."   

The 2011 and 2013 reports also note that the "Carrier does not systematically inspect and maintain vehicles at regular intervals as required." 

In March 2012, the CHP noted: "The defects noted in the vehicle inspection report appear to be long-standing in nature. There is no evidence the carrier is repairing and/or fixing the equipment. The overall condition of the vehicles appears to be very poor." 

The "Polar Express" received a satisfactory carrier rating in January 2013, even though the inspector noted an "audible brake" and some brakes out of adjustment on the bus that did not crash. The report also states the carrier arrived an hour and a half late to the inspection.

Kelley said during one inspection a bus was placed out-of-service for a brake issue but the operator was able to fix the problem on the spot, and the bus was placed back into service immediately.

Anyone from the public can check on the rating and condition of a tour bus or tour bus company by calling the CHP and requesting the information, Kelley said.

"This is a foreign area to a lot of people in the public to know that we exist, and we are here for safety, and we can advise them, 'Here's what a company's history is,' and you can make an informed decision before you decide to use a company," he said. 

All of the victims in the Pala crash, including the driver, were released from Palomar Hospital within two days of the crash.

The investigation into what caused the crash is ongoing.

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