Pulling over a couple of Reds Meadow shuttle buses for unannounced vehicle inspections on the busiest day on the busiest road of the entire summer season wasn’t exactly guaranteed to make the California Highway Patrol the most popular player in town.
It happened on Saturday, July 5, and the lines to get on the shuttle buses that take visitors and hikers to Devils Postpile National Monument from Mammoth Mountain’s Adventure Center were dozens deep and yards long.
It was hot; the wait was tedious. Getting delayed again by the white-and-black cop car was no one’s idea of fun. In the end, of the four buses inspected, only one had a minor issue.
CHP Lt. Commander Ron Cohan, who ordered the inspections, knew exactly what he was doing, he said.
First, the tight, twisty, one-lane road from the top of Minaret Vista to the bottom of Reds Meadow Valley thousands of feet below is one of the most dangerous roads in the Eastern Sierra. The road receives a large number of people who either drive or are bused over the narrow, steep road, and 1,000 foot drops to the valley floor are common, with no guard rails and little-to-no shoulders.
Cohan, who is responsible for a huge swath of the county along the Eastern Sierra front, said roads like this, with the kind of traffic and inaccessibility that come with it, are what keep him up at night.
“This could go wrong so easily,” he said. “This is a resort community. We don’t want to be making the front pages of the paper because of an accident. That’s not who we are.
“If something went wrong there, it could take much of a day to get everyone out, get the people who need to be taken to the hospital out, get the rest flown out. That’s not something anyone wants to see. I don’t want to see it, ever.”
Second, inspections are less telling if they are done during a slow time, Cohan said.
“If we had done the inspection on a Tuesday at 11 a.m., it wouldn’t have been that useful,” he said. “No company is happy to be inspected on the busiest day of the year, I get it.
“I wanted to see how they did under stress. That’s when the temptation to cheat a bit, maybe put someone out there (as a driver) that is not fully cleared.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “The Forest Service and Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) do a great job of traffic control, but I’ve heard it [from people] over and over again: ‘I wouldn’t do this on the highway.’ People think the rules don’t apply when they are out in the forest.”
Cohan said the inspection, which is the first of its kind anyone could recall, was prompted by a minor incident in Reds Meadow during Memorial Day. At that time, he said, a bus pulled over to the shoulder to avoid a driver in a private vehicle who came around a corner.
Another driver saw the incident and called 911 indicating it was an accident and within minutes, a multi-agency response was in full force.
“Arriving emergency service responders quickly determined it was not an emergency—just a bus that had run off onto the roadway shoulder,” he said. “However, the incident did raise a question regarding the weight of buses in the local area.”
To be clear, the inspections did not reveal any major problems with ESTA and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area buses that traverse the road between Main Lodge and Reds Meadow. These buses, on average, take about 2,800 trips a summer and cover about 56,000 miles.
“One bus required about six of its passengers to be repositioned due to a weight violation before the bus continued. These six passengers were quickly repositioned and the bus was on its way. No citations were issued and no enforcement action was taken.”
Two of the inspected buses were operated by Mammoth Mountain, and two buses were registered to ESTA, he said. One bus was fully loaded with passengers and one unloaded bus from each company was inspected.
Inspections included overall vehicle weight, axle weight, vehicle lights, brakes, vehicle documents and driver documents.
“The inspections were performed by a CHP officer specifically trained and equipped to conduct these types of inspections,” Cohan said.
John Helm, the director of ESTA, said the agency’s safety record is “very good” with no major accidents since he took the reins of the agency in 2009.
Even minor accidents are a rarity, he said, noting there were two “fender bender” type accidents last year that were preventable, and two the year before that.
“In both cases, the driver scraped a small tree or a rock wall trying to avoid another vehicle,” he said. “Obviously, we are trying to get that number to zero, but last year we operated for 78 days, we covered about 56,000 miles, and made 157,000 passenger trips to the valley.
“ESTA has been and remains committed to the safety of our operators and our passengers and we take all the steps to be sure the equipment is in good order and the drivers are well trained,” Helm said.
He said bus drivers must have a Commercial Driver License from the state, and go through intensive testing by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Drivers are also screened for drug and alcohol use and must pass a pre-employment test, he said.
All annual routine inspections of the agency by the CHP, called “terminal inspections,” have resulted in a rating of “satisfactory,” Helm said. The only other option is “unsatisfactory.”
Helm said he believes the agency is allowed a certain exemption on what is called “pavement weight” of the bus, due to the fact that the buses are transit buses.
During the inspection, one of the buses was over the weight that the CHP said was allowed.
This is not a safety issue, because the weight of the bus did not exceed the limit for which it was engineered, Helm said, but a regulatory code issue.
The CHP is still looking into the issue, he said, and he expects a response by the end of the week.
“I expect they will find us compliant,” Helm said.