WASHINGTON - A tour bus crash last year that claimed 15 lives was caused by a driver suffering from too little sleep and a bus company that provided too little safety oversight, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
The five-member board, in a unanimous vote, said the driver, Ophadell Williams, had almost no sleep in the three days leading up to the March 12, 2011, accident except for naps he took on the bus while passengers were inside a Connecticut casino gambling.
The bus was traveling at 78 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone of Interstate 95 while returning to New York’s Chinatown when it ran off the road, clattered along a highway guard rail, toppled over, and crashed into the support pole for a highway sign. The pole knifed through the bus front to back along the window line, peeling the roof off all the way to the back tires. Besides those killed, 17 other passengers were injured, some severely.
There was no sign that Williams attempted to brake or steer the bus back onto the highway after striking the guard rail, another indication his performance was degraded by fatigue, investigators told the board. They stopped short of saying Williams had fallen asleep.
Williams has pleaded not guilty in New York to charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Williams’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
“For years, speed has been a factor in accidents,’’ said Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “And, we’ve seen in investigation after investigation the tragic results of the degraded performance from fatigue. Together, fatigue and speed are an especially lethal combination.’’
The circumstances of the New York accident were a perfect storm for creating driver fatigue, said Jana Price, an agency specialist on human performance.
Williams worked mostly overnight shifts, driving to the casino before midnight and returning in the morning. On his days off, he would switch to a nighttime sleep schedule, a transition that creates a feeling of fatigue similar to jet lag, Price said. During the three days prior to the accident, Williams’s cellphone and rental car were in almost continuous use during the daytime hours when he had said he was sleeping, investigators said.
Federal regulators shut down the bus operator, World Wide Tours of Greater New York, after the accident for safety violations. Williams had not turned in any driver’s logs while working for the company as required by federal safety regulations, yet World Wide took no action, investigators said. He had been fired by two previous employers and had 18 suspensions of his driving privileges over two decades when he was hired by World Wide.
After World Wide was shut down, the company’s employees, buses, and other assets were transferred to a closely related company with similar ownership, Great Escapes, investigators said. That company continues to operate, they said.
The accident might have been prevented, or its severity lessened, if the bus had not been speeding, investigators said. The board also recommended that federal regulators require advanced speed-limiting devices on newly-manufactured heavy trucks and buses.
The New York accident, and other fatal accidents in New Jersey and Virginia last spring, sparked an investigation by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration into the safety of curbside bus operators. Last week, government safety officials shut down more than two dozen curbside bus operations that mostly ferry passengers in the busy East Coast transportation corridor between New York and Florida.