NYC crash still reverberates

By David Hubbard

A year after the 2011 New York bus crash on the New England Expressway that killed 15 people, the National Transportation Safety Board offered the findings of its investigation of coach driver Ophadell Williams. The board determined he suffered from “acute sleep loss and cumulative sleep debt.”

Returning on a casino run for World Wide Travel of Greater New York, Williams was traveling nearly 80 mph in a 50 mph zone on I-95 when he plowed into a guardrail, flipped the coach and hit a sign post, shearing off the roof. Fifteen people were killed and others injured. Phone records and work schedules indicate Williams slept little more than three hours at a time in the 72 hours before the grisly crash, mostly in the form of short catnaps on the bus.

The severely fatigued Williams told investigators that a semi-trailer truck veered into his lane and hit his bus, running it off the road. According to a preliminary NTSB examination, investigators could not find any evidence of a collision prior to the accident.

Toxicology reports showed no evidence of drugs in Williams’ system, but rather the classic signs of sleep deprivation. He allegedly lied to investigators at the scene about his prior activities and whereabouts in the 72 hours preceding the accident.

“Fatigue and speed are an especially lethal combination,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman said in a statement. “Unfortunately, in investigation after investigation, we are seeing the tragic results of fatigue, which can degrade every aspect of human performance.”

As the ensuing investigation has revealed, his career losses and accumulations at the time of the accident were stacked so high that an event this horrific was inevitable. How and why he was still driving fatigued at the wheel is the truly disgusting part of this tragic story.
It turns out Williams had his CDL suspended 18 times and was fired from Coach USA, as well as the New York Metropolitan Transit Agency for his failure to report two criminal convictions on his job application. His numerous violations over 22 years include license suspension, improper passing and failure to obey a stop sign. This time, his irresponsible driving that caused the deadly Bronx crash brought him 15 counts of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

FMCSA shut down World Wide Travel after the crash, finding the company had an accident rate of 5.7 per million miles traveled. The agency classifies firms with rates above 1.2 as unsatisfactory. This company was oblivious to any sort of driver oversight policy. True to the style of a rogue, World Wide Travel melded into Great Escapes Tours and Travel Ltd., which claimed to be a totally separate entity.

A question arose as to whether keeping this quiet would send the correct message to the public. The public also has to know that this is indeed a major industry concern; one we are not the least bit proud of, nor one we are trying to cover up.

As we have essentially declared war on rogue operators, it is equally imperative that we salute the federal authorities and their associates for taking up the cause and acting on this issue as diligently as they have, and promote their effort.

While the industry must continue to promote its fully-compliant operators whose livelihoods hang on their performance safety records, it is not enough to keep singing their high praises in the face of disaster. When hurricanes hammer the coastline, would the public get the correct message if FEMA stressed the other places throughout the country where it wasn’t raining?

If the common view paints the entire motorcoach industry as negligent as this handful of operators, it makes everyone’s role more pressing to single out the rogues and present the evidence that changes this perception.

By way of example, elsewhere in this issue you will read of two proactive safety programs the American Bus Association (ABA) and D.A.P. driver training initiated in direct response to the non-compliant behavior of World Wide Travel, Ophadell Williams and their ilk.