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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Driver in California Crash Lacked Bus License

Bus May Not Have Been Inspected Properly

California state officials say that the bus that crashed and killed eight people on a Northern California road was driven by a man who wasn't properly licensed and owned by another man who had claimed to be the vehicle's only driver.

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) is investigating whether the bus that crashed near Sacramento recently was inspected annually, as required by law. They also are looking at whether drugs or alcohol played a role in the fatal crash.

While he was still hospitalized for his injuries, the bus driver, 52-year-old Quintin Watts, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. Mike Marando, a DMV spokesman, said that Watts didn't have the proper license to carry more than 10 passengers.

"He wasn't authorized to drive a bus in the state of California," Marando explained. "It is the responsibility of the bus company owner to make sure the driver is properly licensed, and that was not the case here."

State officials believe the bus owner was Daniel Cobb, 68, who died in the crash. According to state public records, Cobb was insured and had a valid permit from the Public Utilities Commission to operate a bus service.

Agency officials said however that under the permit, Cobb listed only himself and not Watts as the sole driver of the single bus he had registered with the commission.

Paul Wuerstle, the commission's head of transportation enforcement, said, "Mr. Cobb certified under penalty of perjury that he had no employees and was therefore not required to maintain workers' compensation insurance.”

The bus, carrying 42 passengers to Colusa Casino Resort, was observed by a witness as drifting off a rural two-lane road before the driver "overcorrected" and swerved back. It overturned and rolled completely over, landing on its wheels facing the opposite direction. About 30 people were injured, most of whom were Laotian seniors.

According to CHP, the bus had an invalid license plate.

A statement from Watts’ family was issued through Woodland Hospital, where he continues to recover from injuries in the crash.

"We would like to share our condolences to those who have lost their loved ones and also let everyone know we are praying for those who are still in the hospital," the statement said.

Watts' adoptive parents said they were informed by friends and family members that Cobb was Watts' stepfather. Cleval Watts, who adopted Quintin Watts when he was 6 months old, said that Cobb had been married to Watts' biological mother before she died about 10 years ago.
Quintin Watts was diabetic and taking insulin, Cleval Watts added.

Passengers who survived the crash say that the bus driver seemed to be dozing, and they tried to warn him before the vehicle rolled off the road and tumbled into a drainage ditch.

According to Theresa Saechao of Lao Family Community Development of Sacramento, "The bus driver was sleepy and the bus swung to the left and right side. And they were yelling at him on the third swing when it turned over."

Tour bus companies that transport gamblers to casinos don't always follow government regulations designed to assure passenger safety, said safety advocates and bus industry experts.

"Some of these rogue operations literally do pickups in alleys where they are trying to keep out of the sight of federal and state authorities," said Eron Shosteck, spokesman at the American Bus Association, a Washington, D.C.,-based group that represents about 1,000 motor coach and tour companies in the U.S. and Canada.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration controls buses that cross state lines, but tour buses that stay in only one state, such as Cobbs Bus Service, operate under that state's jurisdiction.

CHP annually inspects all commercial buses that travel within California, but in cases where companies don't have bus terminals, CHP spokesman Scott Johnson said, "we don't go. If there's no terminal they don't respond."

A bus terminal could not be found for Cobbs Bus Service, which claimed a Modesto church and a residence in Sacramento as its headquarters.

Still, Wuerstle said the highway patrol told the Public Utilities Commission in October 2007 that Cobb's operation had passed all necessary inspections and that his permit could be renewed for another three years.

Wuerstle continued that Cobb had a permit to operate a bus service in the state since 1974 and had no indications on his record of any past safety violations. The commission is not automatically notified if a bus driver has been in an accident.

Records show Watts, of Stockton, regained his driving privileges last January after he had been cited for speeding and other violations that resulted in loss of his license for nearly two years.

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