NTSB Investigation Reveals Loophole Allows Substandard Buses From Mexico into U.S.Oct 9, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
"We want to close the barn door," said Debbie Hersman, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member leading the investigation into how, on January 2, a Houston-based bus company owned by Capricorn Bus Lines crashed a 2005 Volvo bus near Victoria. "There are already some horses out." The bus was bringing back Houston residents from Monterrey, Mexico.
Two days of testimony before the NTSB revealed that new buses made in Mexico and delivered directly to the U.S. have to either bear a certificate that they meet U.S. safety standards or carry import documents proving a retrofit has been made. Here is the loophole: if a U.S.-based bus company buys a bus in Mexico and then uses it for, say, Houston to Monterrey routes—such as what occurred in the January 2 bus accident—it is not considered an import. One man was killed and 46 other passengers were injured.
In this case, while the driver and passengers were checked for their legal status and documents, no motor vehicle inspectors—either from Texas or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration—were on duty to check the bus's legal status. Had they, they probably would not have noticed anything wrong since inspectors don't have access to those databases that might have revealed the loophole in how the foreign-manufactured bus was registered domestically and without proper import documents.
Although Texas officials determined that a sleepy driver caused the crash, the NTSB was surprised to learn how far Capricorn went to register the bus using the loophole. Capricorn was cited in 2006 for not having Texas plates. Six months later, it used Green River Buses of Dallas to register it for California license plates. Unlike Texas, that stated does not require a title of ownership so, by 2007, Capricorn had applied for new plates from the Texas Department of Transportation, which thought it was a Californian, not Mexican bus. This all means that Capricorn was never required to present documents showing it crossed the border initially, and legally.
Vehicles imported into the U.S. are required to detail on importation documents how they meet U.S. safety standards. Meanwhile, Hersman and NTSB investigators have focused on how the bus entered the U.S. and if the bus was in compliance with the U.S. safety regulations. The investigation has convinced Hersman that charter companies are using a "loophole big enough to drive a bus through" because highway and motor carrier officials do not have a single standard for all vehicles coming into this country.
There are no buses made in the United States. Buses are made in Europe, Canada or Mexico and new vehicles delivered directly to U.S. dealers must adhere to a series of standards. Buses bought across the border, as this investigation seems to indicate, are not held to the same standards. “It's not one level of safety," said Hersman. "That's what we're concerned about."