Hundreds of tractor-trailer and bus companies ordered to shut down because of federal safety violations ranging from suspended licenses to possible drug use have stayed on the road by using different names, investigators say.
The study by the Government Accountability Office, obtained by The Associated Press, comes a year after an unlicensed charter bus carrying a Vietnamese-American Catholic group blew a retreaded tire installed on a steering axle and skidded off a Texas highway, killing 17 people in one of the nation's deadliest bus crashes. The use of recapped tires on the steering wheels is a violation of federal regulations, the study stated.
Such crashes are among the most horrific accidents on America's highways. A 911 caller at the scene of the Texas crash described people being crushed under the smoking bus, reports CBS News correspondent Don Teague.
The GAO report found that at least 20 of the roughly 220 commercial bus companies that had been fined and ordered out of service in 2007 and 2008 by federal regulators evaded compliance by setting up shop under a new name, the same tactic used by the bus operator in the Texas crash.
"It's very easy to re-incarnate. It's kind of like going to the mall and getting a new set of clothes," Greg Kutz, GAO's managing director for special investigations, told Teague. "You put the new clothes on, you look a little different. But you're still the same person."
The investigation found offenders in at least nine states Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, New York and Washington. The violators owed tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent fines and had scores of violations, from operating without the proper license to failing to test drivers for illegal drugs and alcohol.
Another 1,073 commercial trucking firms are also believed to be possible "reincarnations" after incurring fines and violations, often using the same address, owner name, employees and contact numbers.
In all more than 500 of the tractor-trailer and bus companies were still operating as recently as last month, investigators said.
"These companies pose a safety threat to the motoring public," Kutz wrote, noting that there were about 300 fatalities from bus crashes last year. "We believe that these carriers reincarnated into new companies to evade fines and avoid performing the necessary corrective actions."
He warned that the number of violators is likely higher, since the GAO reviews only identified companies based on exact matches of information.
How dangerous are rogue operators? The American Bus Association says 50 percent of fatal bus accidents involve operators who should never have been on the road, Teague reports.
Responding in the report, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said it had put in place new oversight measures after last August's crash, including a computer matching process to compare new applicants to poor-performing motor carriers dating back to 2003. Newly licensed carriers also must undergo a safety audit within 18 months of approval, a step that helped the agency identify several of the rogue companies cited by the GAO.
Still, the GAO said the federal agency did not yet have full computer capability to identify companies that had used similar addresses and names but not necessarily exact matches of each other. Federal law also is somewhat ambiguous whether FMCSA or the states have the proper enforcement power.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., is proposing a federal standard that would give the FMCSA more power to revoke licenses and impose fines. The measure also would direct FMCSA to improve its computer systems. The measures are included in a proposed six-year, $500 billion highway reauthorization bill that the Obama administration wants delayed for 18 months because of questions about cost.
"No motor coach company should ever be allowed to 'reincarnate' and continue to operate on our nation's highways without making the necessary safety improvements," said Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House subcommittee on highways and transit.
He said the proposed legislation will "make sure these rogue operators don't rise from the dead and continue to endanger the lives of the traveling public."
New regulations will make things more difficult for responsible operators like Bill Austin, who's been in business for 17 years.
"For those of us that spend the money to do it right, yes, it hurts from a perspective that the impression of the general public is tarnished," Austin, owner of Buses by Bill, told Teague. Still, Austin says he welcomes congressional efforts to strengthen oversight of charter bus companies - anything that keeps unsafe operators off of the roads
In the Texas crash, Iguala BusMex Inc. of Houston had received a Transportation Department number and was awaiting approval for a federal license when one of its buses crashed near Sherman on Aug. 8. The company was run by Angel de la Torre, who operated Angel Tours Inc., which was forced to take its vehicles out of interstate service just two months earlier after an unsatisfactory review by federal regulators.
Other cases cited by GAO, without identifying the companies were:
Friends and family of the Texas victims say more oversight is welcome.
The Rev. Joseph Vu, a priest at the Vietnamese Martyrs Church and vicar for the 30,000 to 35,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the Texas region, arrived at a relief station set up for victims' families at a church in nearby Denison the day of the August crash.
"I'm going to tell people we don't blame anybody," he said at the time. "This happened like Katrina, like Challenger. What we can do is pray."