The cause of the bus crash that left a hideous trail of dead and injured passengers on I-95 in the Bronx is still unknown -- but the facts uncovered so far suggest an insufficient oversight of the bus and a fatal disregard for protection of its passengers.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
Among the revelations in recent days that need thorough investigation: the charge that the bus was weaving and swerved off the road; the claim by the driver that the bus was clipped by a tractor trailer just before the accident -- a claim that some passengers say is not true; the charge that the bus was speeding.
Some facts that are indisputable are also disturbing. The bus company, World Wide Tours, has been cited for “fatigued driving” five times and investigated for at least two crashes in the past two years.
The driver, as NBC New York found, has a criminal past. He has been charged with three felonies and two misdemeanors and served prison time for manslaughter.
But, in a broader sense, this tragedy should focus on a new phenomenon in the transportation industry.
As prices for planes and railroads rose and people sought low cost transportation, the tour bus industry grew. World Wide and other companies operate buses to and from gambling centers and big cities. The bus that crashed was operating between the Mohegan Sun gambling casino in Connecticut and Chinatown. The price of a roundtrip ticket for this trip is just $15.
The driver, Ophadell Williams, arrived at Mohegan Sun with his passengers about 11p.m. Friday and told authorities that he then took a nap in the parking lot, according to officials. He was awakened by an employee of the casino at about 3 a.m. Saturday, then took his group of gamblers aboard for the return trip to Manhattan, according to officials.
Williams passed a breathalyzer test. Some passengers said the bus was speeding moments before it fell on its side, skidded and struck a pole, which split the bus in half.
The NTSB says that a recording device called an engine control module may tell officials whether the bus was speeding. Major Michael Kopy of the New York State Police says they have a number of witnesses who say the bus was running southbound at a high rate of speed.
Sen. Charles Schumer and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez have both called for the NTSB to launch a thorough investigation of the discount tour bus industry. Schumer says it’s long overdue.
“The industry has grown dramatically and it looks, on preliminary inspection, that the regulations haven’t caught up with the growth of the industry,” he said.
It would seem that regulation isn’t enough. Enforcement is vital, too, and it could well be that, in the zeal to make money, the industry may he taking shortcuts on safety. According to federal statistics more people are traveling by bus every year.
Another bus crashed Monday night on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing two people and injuring 41 others.
Clearly the discount bus companies have discovered a profitable market for their product: passengers who need an economical means of travel. The goal now is to determine what the true price of such travel should be. It can be measured in dollars and cents, but safety should be the main concern.
In the history of New York, tragedy has often brought reforms. We can hope it will happen again, in the aftermath of this bus tragedy. Congress needs to take a hard look at what happened and, if necessary, enact legislation to protect bus passengers.