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Sleep Loss and Poor Oversight Cited as Causes in Fatal 2011 Bus Crash

In a board meeting Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board revealed the results of a 13-month investigation into a deadly bus accident involving a driver who fell asleep on the job. On May 31, 2011, a motor coach operated by Sky Express Inc., which had 59 people on board, veered off a highway near Richmond, Virginia, around 5 a.m. It was reported that the bus hit a barrier, rotated and then overturned. Four died and 49 others were injured.

According to safety officials, although the driver had minor injuries, he refused medical treatment. The safety board determined that the accident was caused in part by his inability to maintain control of the bus due to “acute sleep loss.” However, it also found the bus company and the government partially responsible, citing “the failure of Sky Express Inc. management to follow adequate safety practices and to exercise safety oversight of the driver.” Alcohol, drugs, cell phone use, weather, mechanical defects, speed and highway design were ruled out as factors.

The board’s chairman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, described the crash as “entirely preventable” and said it “never should have happened.” In examining the driver’s work schedule, sleep times and cell phone use, it was found that his opportunity for sleep in the 72 hours before the crash was “limited.” It also cited the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s lack of sufficient oversight of the bus company, saying it “allowed the company to continue operations despite known safety issues.”

Given that the FMCSA’s number-one priority is the prevention of commercial motor-vehicle-related deaths, the passengers on the bus were also failed at this regulatory level. In response, the FMCSA has since closed a loophole that reportedly allowed 10-day extensions for passenger bus companies undergoing safety compliance reviews. The agency also said in a statement that it shut down 54 unsafe bus companies in 2011. The silver lining in this unfortunate accident is that there will likely be greater awareness of the FMCSA and its role in overseeing the general safety of all commercial motor vehicles.

Outside of examining the cause of the accident, federal safety officials also made several recommendations. They proposed expanded research on window glazing requirements in order to protect passengers from ejection. In addition, they recommended the development of ways to assess effectiveness of fatigue management plans. The hope is that these plans will increase drivers’ alertness and keep unnecessary mistakes to a minimum.

Sky Express has shut down since the incident occurred, and Cheung was charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving.

While it is a national story, there have been several similar cases in the Boston area. In 2009, a Fung Wah bus rolled over in Auburn, Mass., which sent 20 people to the hospital. Investigations determined that speed was a factor in that crash. Federal data has shown that Greyhound and Peter Pan buses rate higher than Fung Wah.

Going forward, this blog will attempt to follow how effective these newly-established measures prove in providing a safer transportation experience for everyone on the road.

NTSB cites sleep loss, poor oversight in 2011 bus crash, CNN, August 1, 2012
Many Travelers Not Deterred by Deadly Bus Crashes, WNYC News Blog, March 15, 2011

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