- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A federal safety board on Tuesday cited driver fatigue as the cause of an Utah bus crashed that killed nine and injured 43 others, but blamed inaction by another safety agency for the severity of the accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board voted unanimously to include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s failure to implement motorcoach safety recommendations _ which were made a decade ago _ 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 board investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations. The traffic safety administration makes regulations.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson declined to comment on the board’s action, but said the agency was “working very hard” on motorcoach safety standards. He said extensive crash tests were conducted in 2007.

Investigators for the board said the bus was traveling 88 to 92 miles per hours when it ran off a rural highway near the town of Mexican Hat. The bus driver, Welland Lotan, who was 71 at the time, suffered from sleep apnea and had trouble using a device to regulate his breathing while sleeping in the days before the accident.

Lotan also reported having head congestion, which was probably the result of altitude sickness or a cold and which likely interfered with his sleep, investigators said.

“It’s really tragic _ tragic in loss of life, tragic in the injuries people suffered and tragic because, in my judgment, this accident was preventable,” board member Kitty Higgins said.

The motorcoach was carrying 52 passengers returning to Phoenix from a ski vacation in Telluride, Colo., on Jan. 6, 2008 when it rounded a bend on a two-lane highway and then careened off the road and rolled down an embankment.

Investigators said it is likely the driver’s fatigue caused him to misjudge the bus’ speed and slowed his responses.

The bus was part of a charter of 17 motorcoaches carrying 800 people. Lotan had risen at 6:45 a.m. that morning and told passengers and others that he was fatigued and had been feeling sick for three days, investigators said.

Investigators were able to determine the speed using video from cameras installed on the bus. Audio equipment on the bus also recorded a passenger yelling “slow down” to the driver.

The roof of the motorcoach was sheared off in the accident and everyone was thrown out except Lotan, who was wearing the bus’ only seat belt, and one passenger, who was pinned between seats.

The board recommended in 1999 that safety standards for motorcoach roofs be strengthened, that buses have easy-to-open windows that don’t shatter, and that steps be taken _ including possibly requiring seat belts _ to prevent passengers from being ejected in rollovers.

While NHTSA has made considerable progress on auto safety, it has “left motorcoaches back in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Rosenker said. “It’s time now. It’s not like the technology doesn’t exist.”

Teresa and Maurice Washington of Peoria, Ariz., who were sitting in the last row of bus, lost their 12-year-old son in the accident. The couple also was seriously injured.

“I’m still kicking myself for getting on a bus with no seat belts,” said Maurice Washington, 45, who attended Tuesday’s hearing with his wife.

Legislation to toughen motorcoach safety standards _ including a requirement for seat belts _ died in Congress last year, but another bill has been introduced this year.

Board member Debbie Hersman said the bus crash was the third accident the board has reviewed in the past year in which the operator suffered from sleep apnea, which causes people to stop breathing repeatedly, preventing a restful sleep. Hersman said the others were a marine and an aviation accident.

The crash scenario laid out by investigators show circumstances combined to worsen the accident. Heavy snow forced the closure of a high mountain pass, requiring the motorcoaches to take a longer route back to Phoenix through a very remote area of Utah. In the darkness and poor weather, and perhaps due to fatigue, Lotan took a wrong turn and was on a road that wasn’t part of the intended route when the accident occurred, they said.

The accident also took place in area where cell phone coverage was spotty. The accident was reported by a passer-by who drove eight miles to Mexican Hat to call 911 on a telephone. Poor weather prevented medical helicopters from responding to the accident and it was an hour after the accident before the first emergency crew arrived. The nearest hospital with a trauma unit was about 190 miles away in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The motorcoaches belonged to Busco Inc., doing business as Arrow Stage Lines of Omaha, Neb.


On the Net:

National Transportation Safety Board: https://www.ntsb.gov

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