The horrific bus crash that left 15 passengers dead on a highway in the Bronx has re-ignited questions over whether federal safety regulations are sufficient and what additional measures, if any, can be taken to help prevent similar crashes from occurring in the future.
The crash occurred about 5:30 am on Saturday as the bus was traveling east on I-95 en route from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut to New York City’s Chinatown, where the passengers live and work. Witnesses, including passengers, told investigators they feared the driver was falling asleep behind the wheel or that something was distracting him because the bus swerved repeatedly onto the shoulder of the highway in the minutes before the crash. The bus eventually toppled over and was split in half from front to back by a highway sign post.
The driver, Ophadell Williams, 40, told police that a passing tractor trailer clipped the bus and caused him to lose control, but that account does not square with the physical evidence or the accounts of the passengers and tractor trailer driver. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has told the state’s inspector general to determine if Williams, who was arrested in 2003 for driving with a suspended license and served years in prison for other crimes, should have been granted a commercial driver’s license by the state.
According to federal regulations anybody with a commercial driver’s license may drive a passenger bus, so commercial bus companies rarely seek additional training or qualification when hiring drivers.
Safety advocates assert that other Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations are also inadequate in preventing crashes like Saturday morning’s crash in the Bronx. The FMCSA is currently under fire by the trucking industry for changes it wants to make to Hours of Service (HOS) regulations – the rules that address fatigue by governing a commercial driver’s daily hours of driving and rest. Federal regulators want to improve the rules so that drivers get more rest, but opponents in the trucking industry say that the proposed changes are too complex and bad for business.
Regulators have also pushed for the installation of electronic data recorders (EDRs) in buses to confirm the outdated and often forged logbooks drivers use to keep track of their driving and rest periods. However, a Senate bill that would have required EDRs and other safety measures such as seat belts for bus passengers, has failed to pass, mostly because of the expense they would impose on commercial carriers. Opponents of the extra measures often say that more enforcement is needed, not more regulation.
Federal safety records reveal that World Wide Tour buses were inspected 26 times during the last two years, with five violations related to fatigued driving issued in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The same bus company has had two other crashes with injuries on record, one in Westchester, N.Y., and one in Perth Amboy, N.J.
“The problem is there are thousands of carriers out there, and nobody really focuses on them until there’s a crash,” Jacqueline S. Gillan, vice president at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group that lobbies for stricter bus and truck regulation, told the New York Times.
“We want to ensure whoever is getting behind a wheel and driving 50 people down the road at 65 miles per hour is going to be sufficiently trained,” she added. Ms. Gillan also called the logbooks drivers use “comic books,” saying they were often falsified or altogether neglected.
Mr. Williams claims to have slept in the casino parking lot between 11 p.m. Friday and 3 a.m. Saturday before returning to New York. Investigators are trying to substantiate that claim by scrutinizing Mohegan Sun surveillance tapes and interviewing potential witnesses.