Why charter bus driver Herbert Walters veered off an Arkansas highway in the predawn darkness of Oct. 9 may never be known. As the coach plunged off a rural stretch of Interstate 55, Walters and 13 unfortunate passengers were pried from their seats, ejected from the vehicle and gathered into the arms of lasting darkness.
Fourteen families, grieving yet I presume, are seeking an answer to what exactly happened on that horrific morning. At least one wrongful death lawsuit has already been filed.
In addition to the 14 deaths, injuries were sustained by the 16 other people on the bus. What started in Chicago as a charter to casinos in Tunica, Miss., ended in emergency rooms and morgues.
Pre-existing flaws found
The coach was operated by Chicago-based Walters Bus Service. It will be months before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issues a final report, but preliminary findings suggest that the 16-year-old coach had flaws that should have put it out of service.
NTSB investigators said the coach had pre-existing cracks in the rear frame rails. These types of cracks are serious enough that the coach should have been shelved until repairs were made. The Illinois Department of Transportation conducted a mandatory inspection in August, just a couple of months before the crash, but didn't find the flaw.
Walters Bus Service is owned by Roosevelt Walters, brother of the bus driver. Records indicate the coach was purchased in the mid-1990s. Its roof peeled away in the crash, creating the breach through which 29 of 30 passengers were ejected.
Five years ago, the NTSB urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to enhance protection for passengers of motorcoaches. One of its recommendations was to issue standards for stronger roofs in new coaches. It also urged the safety agency to devise new standards for preventing passengers from being tossed about the coach's interior — or ejected — when the vehicle sustains a front, side or rear impact or rolls over.
NHTSA has not acted on these recommendations.
Did fatigue play role?
No skid marks were found at the scene of the accident. Nor was there evidence that a tire blew out. NTSB investigators are trying to determine whether Walters fell asleep at the wheel. Relatives said he was conscientious about getting enough sleep the night before a long trip.
It's too early to tell what conclusions will be drawn from this terrible accident. I can say, however, that it's a setback for the motorcoach industry. Although more comfortable on the road these days, the traveling public takes notice of these types of crashes, especially when concerns arise about mechanical flaws or driver competence.
It would be too easy to dismiss this crash as an aberration. The industry needs to do a better job of scrutinizing its own practices. Here's what I see. . .
- Crashworthiness of motorcoaches should be improved. In light of this accident, NHTSA should reconsider the NTSB's recommendations.
- Sound preventive maintenance practices and careful pre-trip inspections should be the norm. They're often not. Some cut-rate operators rarely bother to service their coaches or pre-trip them.
- Drivers who have problems with fatigue should be teamed with back-up drivers, even on shorter trips. All of us have nodded off at one time or another while driving. It's not a character weakness. But continuing to drive while fatigued is.
The millions of people who ride in motorcoaches each year deserve these safeguards. And we'll all sleep easier knowing they're in place.