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Driver fatigue, safety agency cited in 9-death Utah bus crash

National Transportation Safety Board says safety standards for motorcoaches came too slowly

A charter bus carrying people from a Colorado ski resort sits upright after running off a wet road and rolling several times down an embankment in southeastern Utah on Jan. 6, 2008.

A charter bus carrying people from a Colorado ski resort sits upright after running off a wet road and rolling several times down an embankment in southeastern Utah on Jan. 6, 2008.

WASHINGTON – A federal safety board on Tuesday cited driver fatigue as the cause of an Utah bus crashed that killed nine and injured 43 others, but blamed inaction by another safety agency for the severity of the accident.

Among those killed was 67-year-old Pam Humphreys, a retired hospice worker from Tucson who was returning from a Colorado ski trip with her family.

The National Transportation Safety Board voted unanimously to include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s failure to implement motorcoach safety recommendations – which were made a decade ago – as a contributing factor in the crash’s severity.

“I am extremely disappointed watching NHTSA crawl toward the standard we have asked them to make,” acting board Chairman Mark Rosenker said.

The board investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations. The traffic safety administration makes regulations.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson declined to comment on the board’s action, but said the agency was “working very hard” on motorcoach safety standards. He said extensive crash tests were conducted in 2007.

Investigators for the board said the bus was traveling 88 to 92 miles per hours when it ran off a rural highway near the town of Mexican Hat. The bus driver, Welland Lotan, who was 71 at the time, suffered from sleep apnea and had trouble using a device to regulate his breathing while sleeping in the days before the accident.

“It’s really tragic – tragic in loss of life, tragic in the injuries people suffered and tragic because, in my judgment, this accident was preventable,” board member Kitty Higgins said.

The motorcoach was carrying 52 passengers returning to Phoenix from a ski vacation in Telluride, Colo., on Jan. 6, 2008, when it rounded a bend on a two-lane highway and then careened off the road and rolled down an embankment.

Investigators said it is likely the driver’s fatigue caused him to misjudge the bus’ speed and slowed his responses.

The bus was part of a charter of 17 motorcoaches carrying 800 people.

The roof of the motorcoach was sheared off in the accident and everyone was thrown out except Lotan, who was wearing the bus’s only seat belt, and one passenger, who was pinned between seats.

The board recommended in 1999 that safety standards for motorcoach roofs be strengthened, that buses have easy-to-open windows that don’t shatter, and that steps be taken – including possibly requiring seat belts – to prevent passengers from being ejected in rollovers.

While NHTSA has made considerable progress on auto safety, it has “left motorcoaches back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Rosenker said. “It’s time now. It’s not like the technology doesn’t exist.”

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