• Kyodo

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An auto accident investigation commission said that an aptitude test conducted on the driver who caused a deadly bus crash in Nagano Prefecture last year showed he had a tendency to mishandle emergency situations.

The finding Wednesday came from the results of a test given by the driver’s previous employer. However, the driver changed companies and began work with Tokyo-based ESP, his employer at the time of the crash, which did not conduct a similar test and allowed him to drive a large bus without proper instructions or training, the commission’s investigative report showed.

In January 2016, a charter bus operated by ESP careened off a road while traveling downhill in the town of Karuizawa, killing 13 passengers and two ESP employees on board, including the 65-year-old man who was at the wheel of the bus. The passengers who died were all university students.

An investigation by a transport ministry commission concluded that the accident was squarely the fault of the driver, who lost control of the bus after allowing it to gain speed by driving downhill with hardly any application of the brakes.

The commission said in the report that the accident could have been prevented if the driver’s employer had made him take a similar aptitude test when hiring him, because such a test would have drawn a similar conclusion about his handling of emergency situations.

The report found that his employer, a Tokyo-based bus operator, increased the risk of accidents by not ordering drivers to take regular health checks or conducting roll calls before they set off.

While the commission called for the transport ministry to increase its checks on bus operators, the ministry has already toughened its supervision of charter bus operators, now requiring them to renew their business permits every five years.

As for aptitude tests, a relevant law prior to the accident did not require a driver to take one when being hired as long as the driver had taken one at a different firm within three years. But after the accident, the law was revised and charter bus drivers are now required to take such tests when they are hired.

Based on its findings from a simulated crash and roadside camera footage, the commission concluded that the bus was traveling downhill for about 1 km with hardly any engine or foot braking. The bus eventually went off the road after failing to negotiate a left curve at a speed of 95 kph, far above the 50 kph speed limit in the area.

Families of the bereaved welcomed the report, saying it clearly showed the responsibility of the bus company president and others.

“I was surprised that they could investigate in such detail,” said Yoshinori Tahara, who lost his 19-year-old son, Kan, in the accident. “They’ve gone into detail even on bus parts and showed what led to the accident. It’s a big step.”

But he was also outraged by how the bus company had thought little about safety. “I want to make sure that there won’t be a recurrence.”

The father of Hibiki Nishibori, 19, another passenger who died in the accident, also praised the report, saying it held the company president and others in charge of bus operations accountable.

“I want them to be punished so that it will raise awareness in the industry,” he said.

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