- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Maurice and Teresa Washington were relaxing in the back row of a charter bus the night of Jan. 6, 2008, watching a movie on the way home from a weekend ski trip, when their lives were shattered.

Their bus rounded a bend on a rural two-lane Utah highway at an estimated 88-92 mph, crashed through a guardrail and rolled down an embankment. The roof of the bus was sheared off and all but two of its 53 occupants were ejected. Nine passengers, including the Washingtons’ 12-year-old son, were killed. Forty-three others _ including the Peoria, Ariz., couple _ were injured.

The Washingtons attended a hearing Tuesday at which the National Transportation Safety Board said the probable cause of the accident was fatigue that led the bus’ 71-year-old driver to underestimate his speed and slowed his reaction time.

In a more unusual move, however, the board also voted unanimously to place partial blame on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying the agency’s failure to implement motorcoach safety recommendations _ which were made a decade ago _ was 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 sets regulations.

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

The Washingtons, however, said they were deeply disturbed by the protracted delay in putting safety regulations into effect.

“There have been multiple other bus crashes. These same types of events keep happening over and over again,” said Teresa Washington, 43. “There are recommendations being made that are not being taken by the agencies that have the ability to make these kind of changes that would save people’s lives and lessen injuries.”

The NTSB made eight new safety recommendations Tuesday to federal and state government agencies, trade associations and the motorcoach operator, Busco Inc., doing business as Arrow Stage Lines of Omaha, Neb.

One recommendation is to develop and implement criteria based on traffic patterns, passenger volume and bus types that can be used to assess the risks of rural travel by large buses.

The scenario laid out by investigators shows circumstances combined to worsen the accident. The bus was part of a charter of 17 motorcoaches carrying 800 people. Heavy snow forced the closure of a high mountain pass, requiring the buses to take a longer route back to Phoenix through a remote area of Utah.

The bus driver, Welland Lotan, suffered from sleep apnea and had trouble using a device to regulate his breathing while sleeping in the days before the accident. He also had head congestion and may have been suffering from altitude sickness.

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. A passer-by drove eight miles to Mexican Hat, the nearest town, 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.

In 1999, the board recommended 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. Several board members expressed frustration those recommendations still have not been implemented

NHTSA has “left motorcoaches back in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Rosenker said. “It’s time now. It’s not like the technology doesn’t exist.”


On the Net:

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

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