Last week’s deadly ski tour bus crash in Nagano Prefecture has revealed limits to inspections by the transport ministry, which failed to detect slapdash operations at ESP, the Tokyo-based operator of the vehicle.
An expert pointed out that the number of inspectors at the ministry was not keeping pace with the increase in the number of tour bus operators.
In a general inspection conducted on ESP in February last year, the ministry found violations in three areas, including the failure to have its drivers undergo health checks, and instructed it to improve.
On Jan. 13, only two days before the accident, the ministry ordered ESP to suspend the operations of one of its buses for 20 days as a penalty over problems in its health management system for drivers.
But the ministry’s special inspection conducted after the accident, which occurred on Friday, detected many more problems that constituted violations of the road transport law, including having drivers work longer than allowed, failing to appropriately keep records about its bus operations and not providing sufficient training to drivers.
A total of 15 people — 13 passengers and two drivers, including one on standby — died in the accident, and more than 20 people were injured.
The number of inspectors for general audits was not enough because such inspections were limited, a senior ministry official said.
There are about 4,500 chartered bus operators in Japan, up 50 percent since regulations were eased in 2000. The number of bus accidents leading to injuries has been around 400 a year.
The transport ministry has 365 inspectors at its regional transport bureaus. In fiscal 2014, they inspected some 16,000 companies, including taxi and truck operators. Of those, chartered bus operators accounted for 1,798, or more than 10 percent, and 301 of them were penalized.
The ministry adopted stricter criteria for imposing penalties following a 2012 tour bus crash on the Kanetsu Expressway in eastern Japan that killed seven passengers. It also has been making a list of operators that repeatedly violate rules to focus on their inspections.
The number of inspectors has been increasing since 2003. But Nobuyuki Sato, a critic knowledgeable about the bus industry, noted, “The number of inspectors is not enough, after a number of small bus operators launched businesses following the deregulation.”
Sato said: “Demand for bus travel is expected to grow, reflecting a surge in the number of foreign visitors to Japan. But the current system is not effective in eliminating problematic operators from the market.”