Bus safety crackdown after tragic results of a broken system

(CBS News) Federal regulators announced a crackdown on dangerous buses Thursday, after the latest in a series of deadly crashes.

Thousands of passengers will be taking buses this holiday weekend, and most bus rides will be safe and uneventful. But CBS News discovered major flaws in the system can allow unsafe companies to stay in business.

Just before a bus crashed last week east of Los Angeles, the driver reportedly yelled out to passengers that the brakes were failing. The bus hit a car, flipped, and slammed into a pickup.

Eight of 38 people aboard were killed.

A federal investigation showed a history of brake problems with the small tour bus company, Scapadas Magicas, and ordered its remaining two buses off the road. Yet the company -- which has not been available for comment -- had a "satisfactory" rating from the government just before the accident.

Deborah Hersman says it's the tragic result of a broken system. She heads up the National Transportation Safety Board, an advisory group that's pushed hundreds of bus safety recommendations over the years, with mixed results.

"We see companies that are not put out of service until after they have a fatal accident," Hersman said. "And so they are inspected, they do have records but yet they aren't addressed until after that fatal accident. We see that time and time again."

Yen-Chi Le says it's the same painful story told with different faces. She lost her mother in a bus crash that killed 17 people in 2008. That company also had multiple violations on record and lacked basic safeguards.

"If started to look into it, and then I realized that everything that we take for granted in cars and planes is not how it is on buses," Le said.

A month after her mom's death, Le began lobbying for new bus safety rules. Many were passed into law just last summer.

The new law calls for "safety fitness ratings," mandates seat belts on new buses, and requires safety standards be developed for roof strength, anti-ejection and rollover protection.

But 130 recommendations were left out, including ways to make it easier to take repeat offenders off the road, which helps explain how there have still been five serious bus accidents in the last month and a half, injuring or killing scores.

Asked by CBS News' correspondent Sharyl Attkisson what the defense is in the case of the crash last week in California, bus industry spokesman Peter Pantuso, of the American Bus Association, said, "There is no defense for a company like that to be operating. That company never should have been allowed to be on the road, they should have been shut down, a long, long time ago, in our opinion."

The Department of Transportation regulates buses. They told CBS News violations by the California company -- a repeat offender -- were not considered egregious enough to "trigger an unsatisfactory rating."

Le said, "It's disheartening and really hard to see other families going through what I've been through."

After the recent birth of her first child, Le is more impatient than ever to see changes she pushed actually enacted on the road.

The Department of Transportation told CBS News it's made "aggressive efforts to strengthen" bus safety, and has tripled the number of bus inspections over seven years.

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