Bus in deadly Calif. crash cited for brake issues

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By MICHAEL R. BLOOD, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The 17-year-old bus that went out of control and crashed on a Southern California mountain highway, leaving seven dead and dozens injured, had a history of brake and other maintenance problems that attracted increased scrutiny from federal safety officials.

The bus that was carrying 38 people from the popular Big Bear Lake resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest was slapped with eight violations by safety inspectors in October, for problems ranging from fluid leaks to an improperly installed battery, according Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration data reviewed Monday. According to the records, the bus was flagged for brake issues in at least three inspections since October 2011.

The cause of Sunday's crash is unclear, but early information pointed to a brake problem. Driver Norberto B. Perez told investigators the vehicle lost its brakes while traveling down the winding, two-lane road. Passengers reported Perez saying the brakes weren't working as he tried to maintain control before the bus hit a sedan, flipped and plowed into a pickup truck hauling a trailer.

Lettering on the bus showed it was operated by Scapadas Magicas LLC, based in National City, near San Diego. The Associated Press tracked the bus's maintenance records using its license plate and vehicle identification number.

The small company based about 12 miles from the Mexican border is licensed to carry passengers for interstate travel and had no crashes in the past two years. It retained an overall "satisfactory" rating from the motor carrier administration but had been targeted for a higher rate of inspections linked to bus maintenance, the agency said.

Overall, buses operated by the firm flunked 36 percent of random inspections, the records indicate. That's higher than the national average of 21 percent for similar companies.

Records show the bus involved in the crash was cited eight times for maintenance problems in October and seven times in July. Overall, the bus recorded 22 safety violations in five inspections conducted between October 2011 and October 2012, including problems with brakes, the windshield and tires.

Stephen Keppler of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a group with industry and government members, said buses and trucks average about two violations for each inspection.

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the crash points to the need for improved roof strength and other safety measures.

"We have a long way to go before we can say boarding a motor coach is as safe as boarding an airplane," she said. Bus passengers "are often riding blindfolded."

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