The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Trio at fault in bus crash
Related: Here’s a synopsis of the NTSB report.
BY SCOTT SHENK
WASHINGTON—The blame for the fatal May 2011 Sky Express bus crash in Caroline County was spread around Tuesday not just to the driver and bus company, but to federal safety regulators, as well.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the North Carolina-based Sky Express failed to heed safety and training standards, the fatigued driver failed to react properly when he couldn’t stay awake and that federal regulators failed to keep the rogue company, and others like it, from putting dangerous buses on the road.
During the meeting, the NTSB board made several recommendations, calling for increased safety measures and regulations aimed at unsafe operations like Sky Express.
“The sad news, however, is the crash we discuss today should never have happened,” said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, “It was entirely preventable. Those travelers were failed at three levels: by the driver, by the operator and by the regulator.”
The NTSB investigation pinpointed fatigued driving as the cause of the fatal crash, which happened shortly before 5 a.m. on May 31, 2011, on Interstate 95.
The bus originated in Greensboro, N.C., and was headed for Chinatown in New York City with 58 passengers when it ran off northbound I–95 near Doswell. It hit a wire cable barrier and rolled over onto its roof, crushing it and blowing out all of the windows.
Four women were killed and another 14 passengers suffered serious injuries. The investigation determined that two of the women killed in the crash were partially ejected and the other two were trapped between the top of the seat backs and the crushed roof.
The NTSB investigation found structural safety problems with the Sky Express bus and others in the industry, including a lack of safety belts and adequate roof strength, a problem advocates have been pointing out for years.
The NTSB investigation detailed a chain of problems that led to the Sky Express crash.
First, the investigators and NTSB board members ripped into Sky Express, calling it the worst of the worst.
The investigation showed that Sky Express failed to adequately institute safety protocols, training and a drug and alcohol program. The company also did not properly keep logs and other records, which allowed drivers to get behind the wheel of Sky Express buses without having enough sleep.
The investigation found that the driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, 38, did not have time to get the required amount of sleep in the days before the crash. The NTSB also said he had previously been cited for falsifying driver logs.
Cheung has said that he fell asleep, and passengers noticed him nodding off at the wheel, the investigation found.
Cheung and a Sky Express dispatcher, 41-year-old Zhao Jian Chen, each face four counts of manslaughter. Chen is accused of forcing Cheung to work after the driver said he was too tired.
The NTSB also criticized the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. While noting that the FMCSA is hamstrung by regulations and has a daunting task of inspecting thousands of long-haul buses, the NTSB said the agency knew of the serious problems with Sky Express yet still failed to shut it down.
Prior to the crash, Sky Express had been given an unsatisfactory rating, which allowed the FMCSA to put the company out of service. But the bus company appealed the decision, allowing it to continue operating. The company was shut down after the crash.
Before the fatal crash, Sky Express had been cited for 46 fatigued-driver violations in 105 safety inspections over a two-year period, according to the motor carrier agency’s records. Sky Express also had other issues, such as vehicle maintenance deficiencies, unsafe driving and unqualified drivers who could not speak English.
Sky Express also had no central facility. The company’s address was actually the home of a secretary. This is a common problem with curbside bus operators.
The NTSB’s recommendations are aimed at fixing the deficiencies in regulations and oversight.
The recommendations include improved monitoring and implementation of fatigued-driving programs, enhanced safety audits of new bus companies and better identification of companies with safety risks.
The NTSB also recommended that buses be required to have safety restraints and improved roof strength, both of which might have helped in the Sky Express crash.
Many of the recommendations were made more than a decade ago.
The NTSB board members were frustrated that those measures still haven’t been addressed, but said they hope changes will be made now.
Hersman said the bus industry is already making some improvements, such as adding safety restraints to new buses, even though no law requires it.
Still, she said there needs to be a cultural change in the industry. She said it should follow the lead of the airline industry, which follows much more stringent safety guidelines.
There are thousands of good, safe bus operators, Hersman added, but there must be a push for better regulation of the bad ones to “assure the highest standards of safety for those millions of people who rely on buses for transportation every day.”
Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, attended the hearing and liked what he heard.
The recommendations, he said after the meeting, “reiterate the fact that much more can be done to enhance safety, much more can be done to protect individuals, much more can be done to get unsafe carriers off the road.”
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436