Tour bus crashes lead California to seek crackdown |

Tour bus crashes lead California to seek crackdown

SACRAMENTO ” California lawmakers said Tuesday’s fatal crash of a tour bus southeast of San Francisco shows the need to strengthen regulation of the industry.

Investigators do not yet know the cause of the crash, which killed five French tourists and injured dozens in Soledad. But legislators noted it was the latest in a recent string of fatal charter bus crashes in Northern California.

“This tragedy underscores the urgency of making sure bus transportation is safe,” Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, said Wednesday.

The California Bus Association is supporting bills by Jones and fellow Democratic Assemblyman Ted Lieu of Torrance. The association supports the legislation because it wants to weed out substandard companies, lobbyist Josh Pane said.

The lawmakers say current penalties aren’t enough to deter carriers that put profits ahead of passenger safety. Jones’ bill would give bus companies no second chances if they knowingly use improperly licensed drivers or buses.

“We don’t know enough about this particular crash to know whether that was the case,” he said. “We do know, though, that last year’s crash that killed 10 was the direct result of a bus driver who was not properly licensed and a bus that was not properly licensed.”

Last October, a charter bus carrying patrons to a Colusa County casino overturned, killing 10 and injuring about 40 others. The investigation found that the driver did not have a proper license from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Later that month, a charter bus carrying the Alameda High School varsity football team crashed in Pinole. No students were hurt, but investigators found the driver was not properly licensed and the bus itself had not been registered since 2005.

Driver fatigue is suspected in a bus crash near Truckee earlier this month that killed one passenger and injured 24 others who were on their way to work at the Resort at Squaw Creek.

In February, the California Highway Patrol conducted surprise inspections of 13 charter buses bringing gamblers to a Sacramento-area casino. The inspection found all but one had violations that included problems with their brakes and steering.

“We’ve looked at this issue and there are a surprising number of buses that violate safety standards,” Lieu said. “It does highlight the need for increased bus regulation.”

After Tuesday’s crash, investigators are reviewing the inspection and driving records associated with Orange-based Orion Pacific. Its charter bus overturned on a Highway 101 overpass in Soledad as it was carrying tourists to Los Angeles.

Any serious violations could mean the end of the charter company if the penalties in Jones’ bill were already law. His bill has cleared two Assembly committees with no opposition.

“Mine is a one strike-and-you’re out approach,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s any room for error here.”

His bill would require the California Public Utilities Commission to shut down charter bus companies that knowingly use unlicensed or inappropriately licensed drivers or buses. Buses that fail California Highway Patrol inspections could be impounded for 30 days.

Currently, bus companies and drivers can be fined up to $5,000 and have their licenses canceled, revoked or suspended for violations. But Jones said the penalties often amount to a “slap on the wrist.”

Lieu’s bill would boost fines the utilities commission can impose on charter bus companies that fail to comply with laws or regulations.

For instance, the $5,000 limit would be increased to $7,500, while a license reinstatement fee would climb from $125 to $1,000. The minimum fine for continuing to operate with a suspended license would increase from $1,000 to $7,500 a day.

Both bills are awaiting hearings in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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