Small bus firms face ministry inspections in wake of deadly Nagano crash

Kyodo

Transport minister Keiichi Ishii said Tuesday that by mid-March his ministry will conduct broad inspections on the safety management policies of bus companies that have received government reprimands in the past.

The move comes after the deadly crash last week of a chartered ski-tour bus that exposed lax business operations by its operator.

Ishii said his ministry will also conduct inspections without prior notice on chartered buses to make sure they have the appropriate paperwork regarding the drivers’ working conditions, and route and rest-stop information.

ESP, the operator of the bus that crashed Friday in Nagano Prefecture, killing 15 people, is believed to have routinely violated regulations. Ministry officials said they have found that the company ran the bus without providing its drivers with appropriate instruction paperwork as required by law.

Operating the bus without the paperwork required by the ministry violates the Road Transportation Law.

The ministry is expected to punish companies if they find violations in the upcoming crackdown.

“I will do my utmost to make sure that such a tragic accident will never happen again,” Ishii said, adding that the ministry will set up a panel of experts to discuss ways of preventing such a recurrence.

On Tuesday, investigators inspected the crashed bus, which ran off Route 18 just east of the resort town of Karuizawa. They analyzed the damage to the bus and its tachograph, a device that automatically records a vehicle’s speed and distance, as well as some of the driver’s activity.

A bus operator is required to compile and provide its drivers with detailed instructions on places of departure and arrival, the route to be taken, break times and areas of caution.

But a special inspection by the ministry showed that the instruction document provided by ESP only specified the places of departure and arrival.

Other possible legal violations by ESP include providing the bus service for the ski tour far more cheaply than the government-allowed minimum.

ESP was established as a security company in 2008 and was given permission to operate chartered buses starting in 2014.

The Japan Tourism Agency, which is investigating the accident with the transport ministry, also plans to conduct intensive inspections of travel companies organizing bus tours at what they call “bargain prices.”

In last week’s accident, two drivers and 12 university students were killed when the bus carrying 39 passengers from Tokyo to a ski resort in Nagano Prefecture veered off the road and rolled over.

On Monday, Akinori Namiki, a 21-year-old college student who had been in critical condition, died, raising the death toll to 15.

Hiroshi Tsuchiya, 65, who was driving the bus when it crashed, told ESP during a job interview in mid-December that he was not used to driving large-size buses and felt uncomfortable behind the wheel, according to ESP.

Even so, he was hired to make up for a shortage of drivers for ski tours.

After being hired, he attended two on-the-job training courses and then drove buses on his own three times after that, the company said. The accident occurred the fourth time that he drove a large-size bus.

Meanwhile, the ministry corrected its earlier statement that last year, ESP falsely reported to the ministry that it had conducted health checks on its bus drivers, and that one of the two drivers on the bus may have been among them.

The ministry said that in its special inspection following the crash, it found documents showing that ESP did conduct health checks.