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Monday, May 04, 2009

Fatigue Cited As Factor in Bus Crash

Recent Hearing Results in Eight New Motor Coach Safety Recommendations

While watching a movie in the back row of a charter bus on the way home from a weekend ski trip, Maurice and Teresa Washington’s lives were shattered forever.

On the night of Jan. 6, 2008, their bus rounded a bend on a rural two-lane Utah highway at an estimated 88-92 mph, hurled through a guardrail and crashed down an embankment. The roof was sheared off and 51 of its 53 occupants were tossed from the bus. Nine passengers, including the Washingtons' 12-year-old son, were killed. Forty-three others, including the Peoria, Ariz., duo, were injured.

At the recent hearing, which the Washingtons attended, the National Transportation Safety Board said the most likely cause of the accident was the 71-year-old driver’s fatigue, which led him to underestimate his speed and slowed his reaction time.

In a surprising move, however, the board also voted unanimously to place partial blame on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s failure to implement 10-year-old motorcoach safety recommendations as a contributing factor in the crash's severity.

"I am extremely disappointed watching NHTSA crawl toward the standard we have asked them to make," acting board Chairman Mark Rosenker said.

The NTSB investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations, while the NHTSA implements regulations.

The NHTSA declined to comment on the board's action, but spokesman Rae Tyson but said the agency was "working very hard" on safety standards for such vehicles. He said extensive crash tests were conducted in 2007.

The Washingtons, however, said they were deeply upset by the extended delay in implementing the safety regulations.

"There have been multiple other bus crashes. These same types of events keep happening over and over again," said Teresa Washington, 43. "There are recommendations being made that are not being taken by the agencies that have the ability to make these kind of changes that would save people's lives and lessen injuries."

Recently, the NTSB made eight new safety recommendations to federal and state government agencies, trade associations and the motorcoach operator, Busco Inc., in business as Arrow Stage Lines of Omaha, Nebraska. One recommendation is to design and execute criteria based on traffic patterns, passenger volume and bus types that can be used to evaluate the risks of rural travel by large buses.

Investigators laid out a scenario that reveals the circumstances that combined to worsen the accident. The bus was part of a convoy of 17 chartered buses carrying 800 people. A high mountain pass was closed due to heavy snow, which forced the buses to take a longer route back to Phoenix.

Welland Lotan, who was operating the bus, suffered from sleep apnea and in days before the accident had difficulty using a device to regulate his breathing while sleeping. He was also suffering from head congestion and may have been a victim of altitude sickness.

In the foul weather and darkness, and maybe fatigue, Lotan made a wrong turn and was on a road that was off route when the accident happened. A witness drove eight miles to Mexican Hat, the nearest town, to call 911 on a telephone. The snow and wind prevented medical helicopters from responding to the accident, and it was it took an hour before the first emergency crew arrived. The closest hospital with a trauma unit was roughly 190 miles away in Flagstaff, Ariz.

In 1999, the board recommended that safety standards for motorcoach roofs be strengthened, that buses have easy-to-open windows that are shatterproof and that steps be taken, including possibly mandating seat belts to prevent passengers from being ejected in rollovers. Several board members expressed dissatisfaction that those recommendations still have not been implemented.

NHTSA has "left motorcoaches back in the '60s and '70s," Rosenker said. "It's time now. It's not like the technology doesn't exist."

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