Investigators digging into records in Megabus crash

(WISH Photo/Chopper 8)

GREENWOOD, Ind. (WISH) It could be several weeks before crash investigators can pinpoint an official cause in a Megabus accident that sent 21 people to the hospital for treatment on Tuesday. Inspection records obtained by I-Team 8 show the company has faced safety questions before.

The bus crashed just after 4:30 a.m., just south of the Main Street exit in Greenwood heading northbound on I-65 on its way from Atlanta to Chicago. The crash tied up traffic for hours.

A preliminary investigation found the driver of a car in front of the bus, Logan Thompson, 22 of Columbus, wasn’t paying attention, and his car went off the roadway into the median barrier. Witnesses said Thompson’s car then bounced back across the northbound lanes of traffic and was left partially in the roadway. The Megabus then hit the back end of the car.

As they do in all crash investigations, investigators began by looking at the drivers. The bus driver, identified late Tuesday as Randall Flowers, 37, of Illinois, has a clean driving record, Indiana State Police said. Records obtained by I-Team 8 show Thompson currently has four points on his license, and faced previously convictions for seat belt violations in 2009 and 2010, for driving on the left side of the road in 2011, and for disregarding a traffic signal in 2013.

Under federal law, all passenger buses are required to undergo an annual inspection. That inspection can be performed by any qualified inspector, including those employed by bus companies.

Federal inspection records obtained by I-Team 8 show the Megabus involved in Tuesday’s crash is one of 54 buses owned by parent company Coach USA North America that is registered in Norcross, Georgia. Coach USA also operates hundreds of additional Megabuses out of 10 other cities across the country, including Chicago. Indianapolis is used as a destination and pick up point, but no Megabuses are registered in Indiana, according to federal DOT records.

Megabus’ 133 drivers logged more than 6 million miles last year on Georgia based buses, and each one of those buses received its required annual inspection, said 1st Sergeant Tyler Utterback, of the Indiana State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division.

“It’s not a government ‘you came to us, we put a sticker on it’ type of inspection,” Utterback said. “But, we do inspect out on the roads to ensure that that’s occurred.”

Records obtained by I-Team 8 show officers conducted roadside inspections, weigh station inspections, and terminal based inspections on the 54 Georgia based Megabuses and on their drivers at least 84 times during the last two years. Four of those inspections resulted in a bus being taken off the road. Two of the inspections resulted in a driver being taken off the road.

“With the bus, that means there was a violation that met the criteria of being egregious enough that it’s considered to be out of service until it’s fixed. With drivers, it could be [that they are] over hours, didn’t have a log book updated, left the log book at home, was [intoxicated] or any number of violations,” Utterback said.

Investigators do not consider those numbers alarming, however, Utterback said.

“They had some out of service violations, but they were well below the national average,” he said.

Federal records list no accidents involving Georgia based Megabuses during the last two years. The company received a “satisfactory”—or passing—rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) during its last full inspection in July 2014. All insurance policies on the Georgia based buses were listed as “valid.”

Safety records of the company’s Chicago based operation, however, are more questionable.

The Chicago operation also received a “satisfactory” rating from the FMCSA during its last inspection in January 2014. But, it listed 10 total out of service violations, including five driver related violations. That’s double the national average.

Chicago based Megabuses have also been involved in at least five accidents since 2012, including one involving a blown tire on I-55 in Illinois that resulted in the death of a passenger.

Forensic engineer Jim Casassa believes that could set off warning bells to investigators as they search for a cause.

“If you’re investigating a company that has a poor record, you might look a little more deeply because you have grounds to believe they’ve not properly maintained their bus or that their drivers are not following all the regulations,” said Casassa, Vice President of Engineering at Wolf Technical Services in Indianapolis.

Casassa, who has studied hundreds of bus crashes over the last 25 years, said the bus’ event data recorder could help tell investigators what the bus driver was doing at the time of the crash, much like an airplane’s “black box” can.

“There is a methodical inspection they’ll go through to check the brakes, the tires, the steering, and all the operating systems of the bus. But, in any crash, there are three elements you need to look at: the vehicle, the environment, and the people involved. It’s very possible this may boil down to human error,” Casassa said.

“We will be providing assistance and support for all of our customers involved in this incident,” said Coach USA spokesman Sean Hughes in a statement Tuesday. “Safety is our absolute priority and we are assisting the authorities with their investigation into the circumstances of the incident.”

Investigators said Tuesday it’s possible rainfall played a role in the crash. An initial investigation found no pre-existing mechanical issues on the bus, ISP Sergeant Rich Myers said, but investigators would continue to examine the bus’ history and operational abilities in the coming days.

Investigators are also waiting on the results of toxicology tests from blood draws taken on both drivers. Those results are still likely several weeks away, Myers said.

Once they’re complete, the case will be passed on to the Johnson County Prosecutors Office for review.

 

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