NAGANO – A ski tour bus that careened off a road in a mountainous area in central Japan last week, killing 15 people on board, has been found by police to have been in neutral at the time of the crash, according to investigative sources.
Engine braking, which could have helped to keep the vehicle’s speed under control as it descended the slope in the resort town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, would not have been available in neutral.
The sources said Thursday that Nagano Prefectural Police are investigating the possibility that 65-year-old bus driver Hiroshi Tsuchiya, among the deceased, may have accidentally put the transmission in neutral.
The foot brake on the bus has been found to have been in working order at the time of the crash, the sources added.
The sources Friday said the bus appeared to have been traveling at up to 80 kph just before the crash, far above the 50 kph speed limit.
The information was obtained from data on the vehicle’s tachograph, a device that records speed and distance traveled, as well as roadside security camera footage that suggested it was also repeatedly braking, according to the sources.
Police will further inspect the brakes for signs of brake fade, a loss of power caused by heavy use, the sources said.
Camera footage appears to show the vehicle’s brake lights were illuminated. According to the manufacturer, the brake lights work when the driver uses either the foot brake or a supplementary braking system fitted to assist the conventional brakes.
Thursday saw a continuous stream of people leaving flowers and other tributes to the dead at the crash site, including ESP President Misaku Takahashi, who paid his first visit about a week after the crash.
“As I picture (the dead) skiing on the slopes and talking joyfully in the bus, I feel a weight of guilt at having taken away these pleasures and dreams,” Takahashi said.
Others mourning at the site included an elderly couple from Saku, Nagano Prefecture. The husband, 78, was a driver of large buses.
“I had often worried (about bus accidents) during rain, snow and typhoons. It’s heartbreaking,” the 74-year-old wife said through tears.
A safety ranking system established in 2011 by industry body Nihon Bus Association had given approval to slightly less than 20 percent of Japan’s charter bus operators by the 2015 business year.
But only firms with more than three years of operations are eligible, leaving out ESP, which began its bus business in 2014.