NEWTON — The driver blamed the crash on a bout of sneezes, prompted by seasonal allergies, that caused her to squinch her eyes, veer off the road, and slam into a guardrail over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton.
But when investigators checked surveillance video from inside the bus, they saw something else: an item that appeared to be a cellphone in the driver’s left hand. Upon impact, the item flew from her hand and skidded across the bus floor. And before paramedics arrived, she picked up the phone, cameras allegedly show.
Authorities have used that video to charge Shanna Shaw, 42, of Mattapan, with obstruction of justice, accusing her of misleading a Transit Police officer investigating the case, according to a complaint filed Monday in Newton District Court.
Shaw also faces citations for speeding, operating to endanger, and impeded operation. Of the nine passengers on board, seven had minor injuries.
The crash, which left one of the front wheels of the bus dangling over the turnpike, was alarming for passengers, said Jerome Higgins, 64, a regular rider of the 57 bus. As the bus took the familiar turn onto Washington Street just after 7:30 a.m. Sunday, he realized something was amiss.
“I knew we were going too fast into the turn,” Higgins recalled Tuesday. “It took a couple seconds, and then we hit the fence. People hit the floor, I went down on one knee, and the driver — she went flying out of her seat toward the door.”
Higgins, who lives in Newton and commutes to his job at the Museum of Fine Arts every Sunday morning, said it was not until after he staggered out of the bus that he realized its precarious position.
“It was just a matter of feet and we could have gone over the bridge,” Higgins said. “It could have been a huge catastrophe.”
Shaw has been an MBTA bus driver since 1996. Her personal driving record showed three crashes between 1994 and this year, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, as well as citations for speeding, two seat belt violations, failure to stop, and improper passing. MBTA officials are only notified about an operator’s driving record if their personal license is suspended; Shaw’s license was in good standing.
No one answered the door at Shaw’s home Tuesday.
Under the public transit agency’s regulations, bus, subway, and trolley operators are banned from having a cellphone in their possession while on the job.
Shaw initially told police she did not have a cellphone at the time of the crash, according to the Transit Police report filed in court.
She said sneezing had caused her to lose sight of the road, and when she realized the bus was turning too far to the left, she attempted to yank the steering wheel to the right, but slid from the seat and could not reach the brakes.
While Shaw was being treated at the St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center for minor injuries, another MBTA employee heard a cellphone ringing in her purse, police wrote.
Police said surveillance video that captured eight angles inside the bus showed that Shaw had an object in her left hand as the bus turned. The camera also showed the object, which appeared to be a cellphone, falling to the floor during the crash, then getting kicked by an exiting passenger.
“Shaw is observed, on surveillance video, checking her pockets and her bag as though she is looking for something,” the report said. She later boarded the bus to retrieve it, police said.
After reviewing the video, investigators interviewed Shaw again. She acknowledged having a cellphone at the time of the crash, but said she had innocently left it in the pocket of a jacket stashed inside the driver’s compartment.
Later, she told police that while the bus was in motion, she put it in her pants pocket. She later acknowledged the phone was in her hand, police wrote in the report.
Shaw offered her cellphone to investigators: The phone had no record of calls or text messages made or received from 5 to 9:30 a.m. that Sunday, according to court documents.
After the crash, Higgins told police he did not hear the driver sneeze, and did not notice her using a cellphone. He said Tuesday that he did not see Shaw board the bus after the crash.
As they waited for paramedics to arrive, Shaw, with glass in her hair, whimpered in pain, Higgins recalled.
Another passenger tried to comfort her. Higgins encouraged her to sit down, but she said her leg hurt too much.
At one point, he looked over the guard rail and saw pieces of metal strewn about on a lane of the Turnpike.
“It was lucky that it happened at 7:30 on a Sunday morning,” Higgins said. “Otherwise, she could have hurt somebody down there, too.”
Higgins said he had only seen Shaw driving the Sunday morning route for a month or so. For weeks, he noticed her fast driving, he said, and it scared him.
“She struck me as unhappy and unfriendly — and on that day, going too fast,” Higgins said.