Driver fatigue and several other factors, including a lack of safety oversight, likely caused a Virginia bus crash that killed four people and injured dozens more, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
The five-member board said bus driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, had limited opportunities for quality sleep in the day leading up to the May 31, 2011, crash on Interstate 95 about 30 miles north of Richmond. The crash occurred when the bus bound from Greensboro, N.C., to New York hit an embankment and overturned shortly before 5 a.m. with 58 passengers on board. The board said the four fatalities resulted from injuries suffered when the bus’s roof collapsed. There also were no passenger seatbelts.
The low-fare bus company, Charlotte, N.C.-based Sky Express Inc., did not have adequate safety policies in place, and ineffective government oversight also allowed the company to operate despite various safety violations, the board said at its meeting in Washington.
“It wasn’t just the bus driver asleep at the wheel,” said Deborah Hersman, the board’s chairman. “The crash that we are here to discuss today should never have happened. It was entirely preventable. Those travelers were failed at three levels: by the driver, by the operator and by the regulator.”
The findings come as government safety officials ramped up efforts to improve safety of curbside bus operators, a thriving industry based on cheap fares. A federal report last year found that the industry has a fatal accident rate seven times higher than other types of interstate bus operators, with some companies using a variety of schemes to thwart safety enforcement.
Government safety officials in June swooped down on more than two dozen curbside bus operations that mostly ferry passengers in the busy East Coast transportation corridor between New York and Florida, closing them for safety violations in the largest single federal crackdown on the industry.
In its presentations on Tuesday, investigators said that Cheung had a maximum possibility of 6.5 hours of sleep before the accident occurred. Investigators also found that energy drinks, coffee and even talking on his cell phone weren’t enough to keep the driver awake. Court documents also show the driver acknowledged falling asleep at the wheel.
Attorneys for Cheung, who faces four counts of involuntary manslaughter at a trial set for November, did not immediately respond to a request for comment but have called the wreck a “tragic accident.” Dispatcher Zhao Jian Chen is set to face the same charges in October.
The board also said that Transportation Department officials were in the process of shutting down the company at the time of the crash, but had given the company an extra 10 days to appeal an unsatisfactory safety rating. A timeline released by the department indicated that without the extension, Sky Express would have ceased operations the weekend before the crash.
“They had no regard for the safety and well-being of their passengers,” board member Robert Sumwalt said.
Following the crash, officials shut down the bus line and then issued a cease-and-desist order against the company after it said it was trying to sell tickets under other names.
Representatives for Sky Express did not immediately provide comment on the board’s findings.
In response to the crash findings, the board on Tuesday recommended programs and regulatory changes aimed at reducing driver fatigue, and also recommended improved safety standards for passenger buses such as better roof strength and passenger restraints.
The board has previously expressed concern about the prevalence of operator fatigue, as well as other safety issues, in all modes of transportation, including the motor coach industry, which transports more than 700 million passengers a year in the U.S. – roughly the same as the domestic airlines.
“It almost feels like it’s Groundhog Day here. We’ve all been here before, we’ve all talked about these bad carriers that need to be taken off the road,” Hersman said. “For the operators, the carrot didn’t work. And for the regulators, I think they need a bigger stick.”
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