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Board Meeting: Motorcoach Accident Report - Doswell, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Board Meeting: Motorcoach Accident Report - Doswell, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Joining me are my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the May 31, 2011, motorcoach accident on Interstate 95 near Doswell, Virginia. Let me recognize Member Earl Weener for his service on his first launch as spokesperson for the NTSB's on-scene investigative activities.

On that pre-dawn morning, a 59-passenger motorcoach, carrying a driver and 58 passengers, was traveling north on I-95 just outside of Richmond. The bus went off the road, struck a cable barrier, rotated counterclockwise, overturned, and rolled onto its roof — killing four people and injuring 49 more.

On behalf of my fellow Board members and the entire NTSB staff, we offer our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those who died in this accident and also to those who suffered injuries. We hope that each of you continues along a successful path to emotional and physical recovery.

Today, our responsibility is to identify what happened and issue safety recommendations to prevent future tragedies. There are several ongoing criminal investigations at the federal and state levels, but our focus is solely on the safety issues.

Yet, this crash and its regrettable loss of life is not an isolated incident. This accident was the third fatal bus crash within weeks last year on East Coast highways. It followed a crash on I-95 in the Bronx that killed 15 people and a crash on the New Jersey Turnpike that killed two.

This investigation also marks the NTSB's 25th bus investigation in 10 years.

Our investigations have identified three recurring themes: fatigued drivers, unsafe operators and ineffective government oversight.

Today, unfortunately, we will hear about those same three again.

A tired driver. This investigation underscores the crucial importance of well-rested drivers and effective operator fatigue management programs. The driver in this accident was fatigued, and, in fact, admitted he had fallen asleep, causing him to drift off the road and lose control of the motorcoach.

An unsafe operator. The bus operator, Sky Express, showed warning signs as a troubled carrier from the time it went into business. In its six years of operation, Sky Express had undergone five Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration safety evaluations, which repeatedly identified deficiencies in the carrier's operations. Yet, Sky Express did little or nothing to fix these problems.

Ineffective government oversight. After Sky Express received operating authority, FMCSA evaluated the carrier through its new entrant safety assurance program — a program with little safety assurance. This investigation highlights the serious flaws in FMCSA's new entrant program. Instead of being a required fitness exam for applicants, the new entrant program is used more as a tool for remedial education.

In its fourth compliance review in four years, a review initiated the month before the crash, FMCSA found Sky Express unsatisfactory in two major areas and conditional in another. That was when FMCSA gave Sky Express 45 days — until May 28 — to submit a corrective action plan. Then, FMCSA extended that 45-day period an additional 10 days to June 7.

But, on the morning of May 31, it wasn't just the bus driver asleep at the wheel.

It was only after the crash that FMCSA removed Sky Express's operating authority.

You have to ask why an overburdened regulator, like FMCSA, with resources to conduct compliance reviews on only 2-3 percent of operators each year, would visit the same operator year after year. Even more to the point, given all those reviews, why was Sky Express still operating?

FMCSA was created in 2000 to protect travelers and keep bad operators, like this one, off the road.

Why is it that 12 years later the problems that led to the creation of FMCSA still exist?

We recognize that the men and women of FMCSA, along with state highway personnel, perform millions of roadside inspections each year. They work hard to assure high safety standards. They all want the same thing ... so why isn't the system working?

It has to be frustrating for safety inspectors who work so hard to see things like this happen. Unfortunately, our investigators see the tragic consequences of taking too little action, too late. And, ultimately, it is the traveling public who pays the price.

There is some encouraging news. This past May, on the one-year anniversary of the Sky Express crash, FMCSA exerted its authority and shut down 26 bus operations for repeated and flagrant violations of safety rules. Swift and certain action will send a strong message to bus operators to put safety first or get put out of business.

And, second, a new law — "Moving Ahead for Progress for the 21st Century" or MAP-21 — signed earlier this month takes a strong stand on motorcoach safety. The law will raise the bar for entry into the interstate bus business and make it harder for companies to stay in business as illegal operators. The law sets higher requirements for training and for keeping crucial records about drivers. Further, the law multiplies tenfold the penalty for safety violations which have been accepted as the cost of doing business, rather than an effective deterrent by the industry.

Finally, when entry requirements, higher standards, and penalties all fail, the law focuses on providing improved passenger protection, by calling for regulations to require seat belts on motorcoaches, increased roof strength, anti-ejection countermeasures, and crash avoidance — safety measures the NTSB has recommended for many years.

The sad news, however, is the crash we discuss today should never have happened. It was entirely preventable. Those travelers were failed at three levels: by the driver, by the operator, and by the regulator.

Dr. Mayer, would you please introduce the staff.