NEW YORK – The New York bus crash that killed 15 people on their way home from a casino has focused renewed attention on problems federal safety investigators have been warning about for years: Cut-rate bus companies. Driver fatigue. And the need for safer windows and roofs.
The cause of Saturday's wreck is still under investigation; authorities called the driver in for questioning Tuesday. But officials said this much was clear already: Because of past offenses, his driving privileges had been suspended, and he shouldn't even have been behind the wheel.
The National Transportation Safety Board is studying the crash to see whether new safety technologies that are available, but not required, might have made a difference.
For example, there are collision warning systems that alert drivers to obstacles in their paths and tell them when they are swerving from their lanes. The agency has also urged the U.S. Transportation Department to require that bus roofs be strengthened so that they aren't sheared off, as happened to the New York bus when it hit a signpost. Also, a Senate bill that was reintroduced this year would require anti-ejection glazing windows to prevent passengers from being easily thrown out of a bus.
"We've looked at all of these issues before," said Chris Hart, the safety board's vice chairman.
It's too early to know whether any of the safety recommendations would have made a difference. But the board has given the Transportation Department failing grades for its slow progress in implementing some recommendations, some of which date back more than a decade.
The bus ran off the road along Interstate 95 in the Bronx as it was returning to New York's Chinatown from an overnight trip to a Connecticut casino. In a similar accident Monday night on I-95, a bus that had left Chinatown for Philadelphia crashed in East Brunswick, N.J., killing the driver and a passenger.
Though operated by different companies, the buses were among scores that line up in Chinatown each day for bargain-price trips to casinos and elsewhere. The independently owned Chinatown buses cater to Asian immigrants and often feature Chinese-language films on trips. They offer cut-rate fares — gamblers can pay $12 round-trip from Chinatown to the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and get a $60 bonus at the casino.
On a typical weekday in New York, about 4,000 seats are sold on dozens of such buses, and 6,000 on weekends, residents say.
In the aftermath of Saturday's crash, Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, both of New York, complained to the NTSB that the wreck was "just one example of an industry that in many cases is operating outside the bounds of city, state and federal transportation safety guidelines."
Federal regulators have long recognized the dangers of fly-by-night bus companies that skimp on safety and skirt the regulations. The Obama administration's transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, has cracked down on "chameleon" bus companies that close down to avoid enforcement and then reopen under a new name.
However, the bus company in the Bronx crash, World Wide Travel, has no history of serious problems. One exception is in the category of driver fatigue, where it is ranked slightly below average by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, based on some recent violations.
Driver fatigue, which has been cited more often than any other reason as a cause or contributing factor to bus crashes, has been the target of a slew of recommendations not just for buses and trucks, but in aviation, rail and marine accidents as well.
NTSB investigators have said they are looking at casino surveillance tapes and gathering other evidence to establish what driver Ophadell Williams ate, what he drank and how much he slept before Saturday's crash. The NTSB would not comment Tuesday.
Investigators said survivors and other witnesses have disputed Williams' claim that his bus was clipped by a tractor-trailer before it ran off the road.
Williams served time in prison for manslaughter and grand larceny, and state officials told The Associated Press that Williams was ticketed in 1995 for speeding and driving without a license and that his driving privileges were suspended when he ignored those violations. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
World Wide Travel didn't return calls for information on how Williams managed to get hired. Telephone calls to Williams' Brooklyn home were unanswered Tuesday. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered an investigation.
Like the NTSB, the police are looking into Williams' activities before the crash and have viewed surveillance video from the Mohegan Sun. New York State Police spokesman Joseph Becerra, would not reveal what police had seen on the recordings or what witnesses were telling police about Williams' activities in Connecticut or his behavior behind the wheel.
He said police were hoping to find still more witnesses to the crash, "anyone who was out on the interstate that day and saw anything."
Federal statistics show that the number of fatal crashes involving buses has been declining somewhat in recent years, from 340 deaths in 2005 to 254 in 2009.
In addition to cracking down on shady bus companies, the Transportation Department under LaHood wants to require all new buses be equipped with seatbelts.
Associated Press Writer Michael Gormley contributed to this report from Albany, N.Y.
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