A small Twin Cities bus company has been forced off the road by federal officials waging a national crackdown on fatal bus crashes.
The Lakeville company, On Eagles Wings Charters, was shut down late last week after a 16-page report cited the family-owned business for dozens of violations. In addition to defects in its 10-bus fleet, the owner allowed a passenger to drive a bus during a trip when the company’s licensed driver became ill. The report noted that the company’s owner ordered that the driver logs be falsified to conceal that violation and others related to the maximum time a driver is allowed on duty.
Federal inspection records from the last two years show the company hasn’t been involved in any crashes or fatalities, but the company’s recent practices pose an “imminent hazard to the public,” according to the report by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Owner Mike LaDue said he’s troubled by some of the harsh language in the report but readily admits that he made some mistakes and took improper shortcuts. LaDue, who has operated the avowedly Christian company out of his home for the past 11 years, said he passed six previous audits. And a certified inspection of his vehicles two months earlier found no serious problems. The company primarily has served church and sports groups and charters to casinos.
But things went awry when LaDue agreed to use seven buses to take an Amway group to Louisville in April, after previously agreeing to loan out three of his drivers.
“You’re trying to get every nickel you can because we’re a small business on a small budget trying to make it with these big giants out there,” LaDue said. “You want to get all that revenue from the seven buses. But I should have canceled two buses and I would have been fine.”
LaDue said he had one driver rotating among the buses to relieve the other drivers. But the buses hit a snowstorm and the trip back to Minnesota took longer than normal. When a bus arrived in Tomah, Wis., its driver bailed because he was ill.
LaDue, who was driving one of the seven buses, said the relief driver wouldn’t have gotten to Tomah for 2½ hours and the passengers balked, urging LaDue to allow one of two male passengers, whom he said were qualified to drive commercial vehicles, to take the wheel.
“I folded under pressure,” LaDue said. “It was a terrible decision but I wanted to save the account. … I made some mistakes. I’m the first one to admit that. But I didn’t think I put anyone in harm’s way or put them in imminent danger.”
LaDue, who hopes to correct the problems and get back in business within the next couple of weeks, said he understands why federal officials are cracking down on motor carriers.
“People are getting killed,” he said. “I don’t think I could go to sleep at night if I killed somebody. We take it seriously about this stuff. We’re going to be a better company.”
Steve Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a nonprofit organization of safety officials and industry representatives, said federal officials have been “putting a spotlight on the industry” where some small, low budget companies frequently cut safety corners, leading to fatal crashes.
In 2011, buses were involved in 13,950 crashes that killed 317 people and injured 16,308. The following year, 14,301 bus crashes killed 284 people and injured 17,211.
Some of the most frequent violations involves how many hours a driver is behind the wheel, he said. That may have been a factor in two recent fatal semitrailer truck crashes — one that critically injured actor and comedian Tracy Morgan and killed a companion two weeks ago and a crash last weekend in Indiana that killed a Twin Cities couple and critically injured their granddaughter.
“The hours of service directly relate to the economic well-being of companies,” Keppler said. “How long they can work is directly related to how much freight and people they can move. So they falsify records to move more freight and more people.”
But most buses remain safe, Keppler said. “Motor coach travel is still the “safest form of travel.”
Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report.