WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board Monday said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration needs to move more aggressively to improve highway safety.
NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt made the comment as the panel reported that a sleep-deprived driver operating a motorcoach during early morning hours on a California highway caused a crash that killed four of the 24 passengers.
“Here’s yet another fatal crash involving both a motorcoach carrier with a starkly evident history of safety problems and a severely fatigued driver,” said Sumwalt. “It’s time that the FMCSA moves more aggressively to keep these unsafe carriers off American roadways.”
“We appreciate the very important work of the NTSB and we will thoroughly review their investigation findings,” FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne said in response to Sumwalt’s comment. “Safety will always be FMCSA’s highest priority.
DeBruyne noted that on October 22, 2016, the motorcoach operated by Autobuses Coordinados USA was shut down by the FMCSA following a compliance investigation that resulted in the company receiving an unsatisfactory safety rating.
The NTSB is the federal government agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety, and assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families.
It has no regulatory authority, but generally lists recommendations for improvements in its crash report.
In the case cited Monday, the motorcoach was traveling from Los Angeles to Modesto on State Route 99. Along the route it drifted out of its travel lanes, striking a barrier system and a highway signpost shortly after 3 a.m. on August 2, 2016, near Livingston, California.
The force of the crash was so great that the signpost entered the passenger compartment and tore through nearly the entire length of the vehicle. The surviving passengers received serious to minor injuries.
The NTSB investigators determined the driver, who was seriously injured, had only about five hours of opportunity for sleep in the 40 hours preceding the crash, leaving him in a state of “acute sleep loss” at the time of the crash. There were no tire marks or other indications the driver took any action to avoid the barrier after the bus drifted out of its lane.
According to FMCSA records, Autobuses Coordinados vehicles failed eight of 29 federal inspections in just under two years, pushing its out-of-service (OOS) rate to 38 percent, almost five times greater than the national average of 8 percent.
After determining that inadequate safety practices of Autobuses Coordinados and FMCSA’s lack of oversight of contributed to the crash, the NTSB called on FMCSA to change its motor carrier safety rating system to ensure carriers with serious safety issues either mitigate those risks or be placed OOS.
In its report, the NTSB cited two 2011 motorcoach crashes it investigated that also occurred during early morning hours involving sleep-deprived drivers — a 15-fatality crash in New York City at 5:38 a.m., and a four-fatality crash in Doswell, Virginia, at 4:55 a.m. — and said those driving during early morning hours, when human performance is often degraded, present a unique risk to safety.
To address the risk the NTSB reiterated an earlier recommendation that FMCSA incorporate scientifically based fatigue mitigation strategies into Hours of Service regulations for passenger-carrying drivers operating overnight.
The NTSB also determined that the guardrail, which did not prevent the motorcoach from colliding with the signpost, and was not designed to do so, contributed to the severity of the crash.
The NTSB also issued two new recommendations aimed at developing risk-based guidelines to determine where high-performance barrier systems should be installed to shield heavy vehicles, such as motorcoaches, from roadside obstacles and hazards.