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Safety concerns surface as discount buses boom in Los Angeles

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A fatal bus crash in the San Bernardino Mountains raises concerns about the safety of the discount bus business as it takes off in Southern California.

The spotty safety record of a tour bus that crashed near Yucaipa that left eight dead and 20 people injured after the driver said his brakes went out as he drove down a mountain road has ignited concerns about how authorities regulate commercial vehicles.

The incident comes as the discount bus business is booming in Southern California, surging by 30% in the last year alone. 

RELATED: Search details of the more than 300 commercial bus companies in California

The reason for their popularity is self-evident: it's cheap. Some offer advance tickets for as little as $1 to popular destinations such as the San Francisco Bay area and Las Vegas. Passengers ride in comfortable seats and some buses have free WiFi.

On a recent afternoon behind downtown L.A.'s Union Station, passengers heading for San Francisco lined up to board a Megabus, the fastest growing discount bus company in the market. As they left, another Megabus pulled in from Las Vegas.

“I like the scenic routes, and it’s cheaper,” said Selitha Butler, who was returning home from visiting family in Nevada.

Megabus, which has long offered cheap rides in the East coast, opened its Los Angeles hub this past December.  The UK-based company had tried to expand into Los Angeles in 2007, but that was before the recession and ridership was too low to justify the routes back then.  Now, with the economy still weak, it’s seizing the moment and using social media to market the cheap rides. It has over 95,000 Facebook fans and more than a few real-life ones. 

“I love, love it," said Los Angeles resident Tracy Seehall as she stepped off the bus from Las Vegas. "For a dollar, you can’t go wrong, you gotta try it!”

Bus travel is clearly not without its risks. Since 1990, there have been more that 180 motorcoach crashes and fires in the U.S., which have killed 334 people, including the eight in Yucaipa last week.

Megabus has had 6 fatal bus accidents in the last two years -- three of them from tire blowouts. Its California operator, Pacific Coast Sightseeing Tours & Charters, has a sterling safety record.

Discount buses used to be limited to curbside coaches known as "Chinatown buses," which were concentrated in New York City and the northeast corridor of the United States. A series of safety violations, punctuated by the deaths of nearly 20 passengers in two major accidents, led federal authorities to crack down last spring.

The Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the industry, shut down 26 bus operators in six states along I-95 in May 2012. That was a rare action, but it repeated it on Friday, when itshut down Scapadas Magicas, the National City company that owns the bus that crashed in Yucaipa.

The agency relies on state law enforcement officials to inspect the buses, then tracks safety for every legally operating bus and motor coach company in the U.S. In California, that responsibility falls to the California Highway Patrol.

CHP inspectors rate buses in several categories, including vehicle maintenance, hours-of-service compliance and driver fitness. If a bus racks up enough violations, it lands on a federal watch list for increased inspections.

In California, 58 of 354 legally operating commercial bus companies are on the list, including Scapadas Magicas.

According to inspection records, that bus was cited four times in the last 24 months -- twice in a period of two months for out-of-service brakes. But on January 9, just one month before the fatal crash, the bus went through a safety audit performed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and was given a satisfactory compliance review -- the highest rating possible.

It's an imperfect system, complicated by federal transit laws like the SAFETEA-LU act, a sweeping piece of legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005. A small provision in the law made it illegal for the CHP and other state enforcement agencies to perform enroute bus inspections of buses on the list unless they witness an infraction. 

“That’s a problem," said Steve Keppler, a former bus inspector and executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a trade group for bus inspectors.

He said the law is completely different for big rigs, which can be stopped simply for having a poor safety record.

“It’s hard for me to fathom why we can stop trucks roadside but we can’t stop buses,” Keppler said. "I think passengers are a bit more precious cargo than freight."

As a result, only about 30,000 of the approximately 3.6 million inspections conducted of commercial vehicles each year are on tour buses. That's a tiny fraction of the buses owned by more than 500,000 legally registered carriers in the U.S. Federal law does require bus companies be inspected at least once a year. 

Of equal concern is public access to bus safety records. Passengers waiting for the Megabus at Union Station said they weren't concerned about safety, but wouldn't know how to find out whether the bus they were about to board was safe. 

The safety reports are published on a federal website, but it’s hard to find and harder to navigate. A consumer who want to check would need the ID number of the bus she's about to ride or the name of the company--which many times is not the same as the name it's doing business under. For example, searching “Megabus” produces no records. That's because it uses different operators in each of five regions. Safety records are listed under those operators' names.

“I understand this stuff, but it took a long time for me to understand it because it’s never simple,” said Dan Ronan, a safety inspector and official with the American Bus Association, which represents more than 1,000 motor coach companies in North America. "If you’re an average person, you’re sitting down to look at this thing, it’s gonna confuse you."

In light of the Yucaipa crash, California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein say the Department of Transportation needs to hurry up and implement changes required by a transportation law known as MAP-21, which President Obama signed nearly a year ago. It includes safety regulations such as anti-ejection measures that the senators said are urgently needed. 

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