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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, right, accompanied by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administration (NHTSA) Acting Administrator David Friedman, center, and Assistant Transportation Department Secretary for Research and Technology Greg Winfree, speaks about Transportation Department's decision on vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology, Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, at the Transportation Department in Washington, . (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Utah bus company closed by feds
Serv-A-Bus » Hellish road trip for Beaver High School students prompts the order to halt operations.
First Published Mar 14 2014 03:48 pm • Last Updated Mar 15 2014 03:03 pm

Federal officials say a commercial bus carrying the Beaver High School speech and debate team to Berkeley, Calif., last month had its mirrors, bumpers and luggage compartments held together with bungee cords. It smelled like gasoline inside and the front doors would not stay closed.

The bus driver stood while at the wheel to remove his sweatshirt or adjust his seat cushion, causing the bus to swerve. He drove the entire 14.5 hour trip, far exceeding federal driving limits. Along the way, he made many unsafe lane switches, and nearly forced other cars off the road.

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The team found a different bus for the trip home. It turned out to be a smart move because as the empty bus returned to Utah, it caught fire and completely burned in California.

After that hellish road trip, the U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday ordered Sandy-based Serv-A-Bus and its owner, Gene Brady, to immediately cease all passenger operations, and declared it "an imminent hazard to public safety."

It said the company has been ignoring a January 2013 cease-operations order and revocation of its USDOT registration after earlier receiving an unsatisfactory safety rating.

Brady told The Tribune he is already out of business, but had leased some buses held in his name to another company.

Regulators "are blowing things out of proportion," he said, and in "the last 12 years have done everything they can to put me out of business. … It’s been the biggest nightmare of my life."

The order is a big enough deal that U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a statement on it.

"Safety is our top priority and we will not tolerate this kind of callous disregard for public safety by any transportation mode," he said. "These violations are especially egregious considering the company was transporting students despite being ordered to stop all operations."

The order issued Friday said federal inspectors found that Serv-A-Bus had conducted at least 11 trips — mostly for schoolchildren — after the earlier order to cease operations.

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But it focused on the Beaver High School trip, which led regulators to discover the ongoing violations.

Brady bid for the trip, but "did not properly qualify the driver or pre-employment test the driver for controlled substances," according to the order.

While Brady promised a second driver would take over the bus in Las Vegas, it continued, Brady "did not arrange for a second driver" for the 14.5 hour trip, violating driving limit regulations.

The rear-view mirror, bumpers and luggage compartment door were "held onto the bus with bungee cords. While being operated on the highway, the front sliding doors would not stay closed." Brady told The Tribune that just one bungee cord was used to hold a rear door shut.

Inside the bus, the order said, "passengers observed a strong gasoline odor in the bus, and one of the adults was told to hold a pillow over the interior access hatch so that the air would not blow into the bus."

Passengers also reported seeing the driver stand while driving to remove his sweatshirt and to move his seat cushion, "causing the bus to swerve dramatically." They said he made numerous unsafe lane changes, including some "that nearly forced other cars off the road."

Concerned chaperones found other transportation home.

But as the empty bus was returning to Utah, it developed engine problems. Flames appeared after it stopped. "The driver heard two explosions and observed parts flying in every direction and the fire fully engulfing the bus," the order said.

It added that Brady told state and federal investigators he had leased his Serv-A-Bus vehicles to Shamrock Transportation, and he was the operations manager for that company. The order said Shamrock never had federal interstate-operating authority, and inspections found the same safety problems earlier identified at Serv-A-Bus.

Brady told The Tribune he is fighting the order, but added he already is out of business — although he had leased some equipment held in his name to others. Serv-A-Bus still had a website operating Friday, and Brady answered the business phone listed there. The logo for the company includes the phrase, "Our most precious cargo, children!"

Anne Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said in a news release that public safety is a top priority on the nation’s highways.

"There is no place on our highways and roads for bus and truck companies and commercial drivers that ignore safety and put the public at needless risk."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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