Saturday, January 7, 2017

Los Angeles Helicopter Crash Takes the Life of Photographer and Pilot

A helicopter crash at the Port of Los Angeles resulted in the death of the two men aboard and a lengthy search by rescuers. The passenger killed in the Los Angeles helicopter crash was a well-known photographer on assignment for the port, while the pilot had a regular job as a director of strategic planning.

The helicopter accident occurred in the evening hours of January 4, 2017 in a black Robinson R22 helicopter and was witnessed by cruise ship passengers within the harbor, as well as people on the shore.

Helicopter Flight Intended as Short Aerial Photo Shoot

The Robinson R22 helicopter involved in the crash, which was registered to JJ Helicopters Inc., took off from Zamperini Field north of Long Beach with two passengers aboard: Pilot Christopher Reed, 41, and photographer Michael Justice, 61. Justice was a veteran freelance photographer who often did work for the port, the two men departed with the goal of capturing images of the three cruise ships that were docked in harbor—a rare occurrence. Justice had been hired by the port for the photo shoot.

At around 4:30 p.m. on January 4, 2017, Reed and Justice left the Torrance airport in the Robinson R-22. Justice had booked the helicopter for one hour. During their flight, Reed made no reports back to Torrance airport, and, at around 5:40 p.m., witnesses aboard the cruise ships within the harbor and nearby locations began to call 9-1-1 with reports of the downed aircraft. The U.S. Coast Guard is attempting to find out if Reed or Justice made any distress calls.  

Lengthy Search Follows Los Angeles Helicopter Crash 

Witnesses aboard one of the cruise ships told authorities they saw the Robinson R-22 circle a cruise ship three times before crashing. Report placed the crash near the Angels Gate Lighthouse, which is located at the end of the Port of Los Angeles breakwater and near one of the two entrances to the port.

Following reports of the Los Angeles helicopter crash, officials closed the Los Angeles Harbor Entrance by Angels Gate and put a 1,000-foot safety zone in effect. Officials immediately began the search for the helicopter by both air and sea, but had to call off rescue efforts that night due to inclement weather. It would not be until 11:08 a.m. the next morning, Thursday, January 5, 2017, that Los Angeles Port Police would locate the downed helicopter using sonar equipment. The wreckage was found near the breakwater that stems from the Cabrillo Beach, and trapped under 15 to 20 feet of water. Both Reed and Justice appeared to have perished inside the aircraft.

Who Were the California Helicopter Accident Victims? 

Both victims of the crash were known in the community for their love of what they did.

Michael Justice: A Talented and Loved Photographer

Michael Justice, who was aboard the helicopter to photograph the cruise ships in harbor, had worked freelance with the Port of Los Angeles since 2010, and had an impressive resume that included shooting for the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, Forbes and National Geographic Adventurer. He had even spent time photographing Mother Teresa.

Beyond his talent, Justice was well loved by those who worked with him. Former Daily Breeze newspaper photojournalist Branimir Kvartuc, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, spoke fondly of his memories with Justice.

“He had a million stories to tell, but never forced them on you,” Kvartuc told the publication.
Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield had similar praise.
“He was really an extended member of the harbor family,” Sanfield said of Justice. “He lived and breathed on the docks.”

On January 6, 2017, the Port of Los Angeles posted a video tribute to the deceased freelance photographer on their Twitter account, showcasing some of their favorite photos Justice had taken.

Christopher Reed: A Passionate Pilot 

Christopher Reed, who was piloting the Robinson R-22 during the crash, would have been 42 years old on January 7, 2017. In his daily life, Reed worked for Honeywell Aerospace as director of strategic planning, integrated supply chain. His love of flying, however, led him to take a part-time job at JJ Helicopters, flying photographers for photo shoots and giving tours.

Reed received his commercial pilot certification in 2016, and was licensed to fly rotorcraft helicopters, as well as multi and single-engine airplanes. Reed also had his own plane, a four-seat Mooney, which he would fly to national parks.

His mother, Holly Rossing, recalled her son’s skill as a pilot in the wake of the Los Angeles helicopter crash.

“He enjoyed flying," Rossing said to the Daily Breeze. “I flew with him. I was so used to the big airplanes when they land. They go ‘bounce bounce.’ It’s really scary. He’d just land wonderfully. It was just great.”

Chopper Crash Raises Alarms About Robinson R22 Helicopter 

The focus of the Los Angeles helicopter crash has not been solely on the occupants of the aircraft or the conditions of the crash, but also on the aircraft itself: The Robinson R22.
The crash on January 4, 2017 was the second Robinson R22 crash to occur in California within a week. The first—a December 29, 2016 hard landing at Mount Baldy—did not result in fatalities, but four people on board had to be rescued and one was flown to a trauma center.

Recently, New Zealand added Robinson R22 to its “most pressing concerns” watchlist, due to “mast bumping accidents” that have led to 18 deaths in the country in the past 20 years. Mast bumping accidents are often fatal for those on board because they typically cause the helicopter to break up while in flight. They occur when the inner part of a main rotor blade contacts the main rotor drive shaft.

Adding to the concerns of New Zealand’s Transportation Accident Investigation Commission, was the fact that four of their recommendations to decrease accidents had not been implemented by Robinson Helicopter.

What Caused the Robinson Helicopter Crash? 

The cause of the Los Angeles helicopter crash remains unknown, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hopes to have a preliminary report on the cause of the accident in the week of January 9, 2016. The full investigation and report are likely to take about a year.

NTSB officials are hoping to compile any video footage of the crash, as well as to speak to any witnesses. Those with video footage or who saw the helicopter crash are asked to contact the NTSB at

Friday, December 9, 2016

Oakland Warehouse Fire Takes 36 Lives

An Oakland warehouse fire has taken 36 lives, making it the deadliest fire in the U.S. in 13 years according to experts. The fire, which took place in a warehouse called the "Ghost Ship," started on December 2, 2016, during a party at the building. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), have reportedly completed their investigation at the scene of the destroyed building, but have not yet determined what caused the deadly fire. Now families are left to mourn their loved ones while officials determine what charges, if any, should be laid.

Fire Started During Concert 

The fire reportedly started during the late hours of December 2, 2016, during a concert, held at the "Ghost Ship" warehouse. Approximately 100 people were on the second floor of the warehouse at the time of the fire.

Although officials still are not sure what caused the fire to start, they do not believe that it was purposely set. Either way, according to reports, the fire quickly spread from its original location on the first floor, trapping and killing 36 people on the second floor. Reports indicate there were no fire suppression or alarm systems in the building.

"There was rapid fire progression," said Jill Snyder of the ATF. "Initial witness interviews have indicated the fire was well developed by the time the second-floor occupants realized a fire was going on on the first floor."

Neither of the building's two staircases led to an exit, and with a maze of wooden pallets—including wooden pallets that were used to build a stairwell—RVs and artistic works were on the first floor, people not familiar with the building would have had a difficult time getting out in the dark.

The fire department was called to the scene around 11:30 p.m. that Friday night. The fire moved so quickly it was declared a defensive fire, meaning firefighters could not go inside the building due to the danger. They were left to attack the fire from the outside to get it under control.

City officials declared a local state of emergency, which could allow for state and federal funds to help cover some of the costs associated with responding to the blaze.

Former Ghost Ship Residents Describe Poor Living Conditions 

In addition to being a site for dance parties and concerts, the "Ghost Ship" building was reportedly an illegal residence for between 20 and 25 artists, including musicians, dancers and woodworkers. Former residents, however, described a building beset with problems, including frequently having no electricity or running water. Authorities had been called to the building in the past to investigate dangerous living conditions and problems with drugs, but the building was allowed to remain open.

As recently as mid-November, 2016, a city inspector attempted to gain access to the building to investigate complaints about an illegal residence, but was unable to gain entry to the "Ghost Ship," and left. In fact, the warehouse had reportedly not been inspected for at least 30 years.

Victims of Oakland Warehouse Fire Remembered by Loved Ones

The families of those who were killed in the Oakland warehouse fire are now left remembering their loved ones in the wake of the tragedy, and asking how such a disaster could have happened. Included in the dead is 22-year-old Cash Askew, who played guitar in a musical duo and was part of a community of artists who could regularly be found at the "Ghost Ship."

"I need the world to know how incredible she was," said Askew's girlfriend, Anya Taylor. "I loved her more than anything in the world."

Also killed in the fire was 35-year-old Alex Ghassan, a filmmaker who had recently moved to Oakland from New York. Ghassan worked as a freelance producer and director, and had two young daughters. Just before the fire broke out, Ghassan reportedly posted a video of the concert.

"He always wanted to be remembered by his work, so let's celebrate him and his work," Ghassan's mother said.

Officials reported that two people who died in the fire were found holding each other, protecting each other. Those two people were 20-year-old Michela Gregory and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Alex Vega. The two had been together about five years and attended the concert together. These are just four of the 36 lives that were tragically ended at the Oakland warehouse fire.

Charges Not Yet Laid in Fire 

Investigators have not yet said whether Chor Ng, the woman who owns the "Ghost Ship," or Derick Ion Almena, the man who founded the artists' colony that was housed in the warehouse, will face charges for the deaths. Ng was reportedly given a citation in November 2016 for dangerous trash and debris around the building.

Among the potential charges linked to the Oakland warehouse fire are anything from involuntary manslaughter to murder. Officials and former residents of the building have said the warehouse was unsafe and witnesses say Almena was repeatedly confronted about the living conditions in the "Ghost Ship."

Oakland Blaze the Deadliest Since 2003 

The Oakland warehouse fire is the deadliest fire in the U.S. since a 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island took the lives of 100 people. That fire, the fourth deadliest on U.S. soil, occurred when fireworks used by the band Great White set fire to foam inside the club, called The Station. In addition to the 100 people killed, more than 200 were injured.

In August 2016, seven people died and dozens more were injured in an explosion at a Washington D.C. apartment complex. Residents reportedly complained about a gas smell at the building for days before the explosion. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

NTSB Most Wanted List For Transportation Safety 2017-2018

On November 14, 2016, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its 2017-2018 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. Although transportation safety has improved substantially since the NTSB was formed almost 50 years ago, as the NTSB Most Wanted List shows, there are still many transportation areas that need safety improvement. Among items included on the NTSB Most Wanted List are eliminating road distractions, preventing loss of control in flight, and improving rail transit safety oversight, all of which contribute to increased transportation fatalities.

NTSB Most Wanted List Highlights Fatigue, Distractions While Driving 

In August 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that from 2014 to 2015, the number of traffic-related fatalities increased 7.2 percent to more than 35,000. It was the largest increase in traffic fatalities year-to-year since 1966, and it ended five decades of declining traffic-related fatalities.

"The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled," said NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind. "While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities."

Fatigue-Related Driving Accidents 

"According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from 2009 to 2013, more than 72,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers, and resulted in more than 41,000 injuries and more than 800 deaths," the NTSB states in its Most Wanted List. "Another study conducted in 2014 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that as many as one in five fatal crashes involve drowsy driving."

The NTSB recommends that companies establish fatigue risk management programs to reduce the risk of fatigue-related accidents. Also included in the more than 200 safety recommendations to address fatigue, are research into training on and treatment of sleep disorders. Implementation of technology in vehicles to reduce fatigue-related accidents is also recommended. This includes electronic logging devices designed to ensure compliance with regulations involving hours of service for commercial truck drivers.

In addition to traffic accidents, fatigue can play a role or be a contributing factor in aviation and rail accidents. NTSB reports that around 20 percent of the 182 major NTSB investigations undertaking from 2001 to 2012 cited fatigue as being related to the accident, in some cases as the probable cause.

Eliminating Driving Distractions 

Operating vehicles, aircraft or other modes of transportation requires the person in control to be completely focused on the task at hand. Unfortunately, many people believe they can multitask while they drive. This includes use of portable electronic devices while driving, and undertaking any tasks that pull the focus off of operating the vehicle. According to the NTSB, 10 percent of all traffic-related deaths were linked to distracted driving. 

Public education, strict laws and tough enforcement are all recommended by the NTSB to curb distractions.

General Aviation Safety Improvements 

The NTSB Most Wanted List also addresses general aviation loss of control as an area that requires fixing. According to the NTSB, roughly 50 percent of all general aviation (GA) fatalities from 2008 to 2015 were linked to loss of control. Although the aviation fatality rate in 2015 was the lowest it had been in years, NTSB notes that there is still room for improvement, especially as it relates to loss of control.

General aviation loss of control accidents—in which a domestic civilian aircraft, not counting a commercial airline, experiences an "unintended departure from controlled flight"—were the cause of 1,194 fatalities from 2008 to 2014. Among the reasons for a loss of control are pilot distractions, weather issues or loss of situational awareness.

"GA pilot proficiency requirements are much less rigorous than those of airline pilots," the NTSB Most Wanted List notes. "GA pilots are more likely to have longer intervals between training sessions and between flights. They typically only need to complete a flight review consisting of, at a minimum, 1 hour of ground training and 1 hour of flight training every 24 months."

The NTSB Most Wanted List recommends increased training for GA pilots, including ensuring GA pilots understand stall characteristics and warning signs, learn emergency response skills and install new technology to assist during critical phases of flight.

Improving Rail Oversight 

According to the NTSB, safety oversight of rail transit is "unreliable and inconsistent," which increases the risk of a rail transit accident. With millions of people relying on rail transit to commute from home to work daily, it is critical that rail transit safety be closely monitored and enhanced. NTSB recommends that safety standards be created and enforced to ensure transit agencies continually maintain their infrastructure and address issues with safety.

"Rail transit must be subject to competent oversight bodies that have standards and rules (and the power to enforce those rules)," NTSB writes. "Although each rail transit system has unique equipment, operating environments, and challenges, all need strong safety oversight."

Other Improvements on NTSB Safety List 

Other transportation improvements included on the NTSB Most Wanted List included eliminating drug and alcohol impairment in transportation, expanding the use of recorders to improve safety, strengthening occupant protection, and ensuring the safe shipment of hazardous materials.

Improvement List Moves to Two-Year Cycle 

The NTSB Most Wanted List has been issued since 1990 to highlight the most important changes that are needed to improve safety in the transportation industry. When it released the 2017-2018 list, the NTSB noted that it will shift to a two-year cycle of releasing the list, rather than releasing it every year. Switching to a two-year cycle allows members in the industry to implement the changes recommended before receiving a new list of priority improvements. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Colorado School Bus Accident Kills Driver, Injures Students

A Colorado school bus accident resulted in the death of the bus driver and serious injuries to some passengers. The school bus was carrying members of the Legacy High School football team, according to reports, when it crashed into a concrete pillar at Denver International Airport shortly after picking up team members.

 Victims of the Colorado School Bus Accident Identified 

At the time of the Colorado school bus accident, the bus was carrying 28 students and three coaches who had arrived in Denver following a game in California. The four adults on the bus were all at the front of the vehicle, which is where the impact of the bus crash was felt most.

  • According to School Transportation News, the driver of the bus was Kari Chopper, who had been a school bus driver for Adams 12 Five Star Schools for four years. Although the airbags deployed, Chopper died of blunt force injuries. A GoFundMe page has been started to help Chopper's family. Chopper is survived by a husband, four children and one grandchild.
  • Wayne Voorhees, Matt Kroupa and Kyle Rider—all coaches with the football team—suffered significant injuries and were treated in local hospital, according to the school district.
  • All 15 football players who were injured in the accident were released from local hospitals shortly after the bus crash.

The Denver Police Department is investigating the Colorado school bus accident, which reportedly occurred after the bus driver circled the bus around to return to the airport for reasons that are not yet clear. After circling back to the airport, the bus moved off the road and crashed into a concrete pillar. Two other buses from the school district were also at the airport to pick up students, but were not involved in the crash.

Investigators are looking into the possibility of mechanical issues with the bus and are considering other possible causes for the crash, including whether the bus driver suffered from health problems. Reports indicate Chopper had passed her routine physical on May 10, 2016.

School District Offers Support to Students Affected by Colorado School Bus Accident 

Following news of the Colorado school bus accident, the school district noted that crisis response teams would be available to support staff and students at both Legacy High School and the district transportation center. Athletes involved in the accident were being monitored and had to be cleared before allowed to play in an upcoming game.

A letter from Superintendent Chris Gdowski thanked the community for its support of the district, staff and students.

"While we have 50-plus schools in our district, the relationships between staff, students and parents extend beyond school walls," Gdowski wrote. "We collectively offer our condolences to the family of Kari Chopper, the bus driver who died in yesterday's accident. The family and our transportation staff need your continued thoughts and prayers during this difficult time."

NHTSA Tracks School Bus Crashes 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) records school bus accidents. Of all fatal motor vehicle crashes from 2003 to 2012, 0.35% were considered by the NHTSA to be school-transportation-related. During that same time, 174 school-age children died in school-transportation-related crashes. Of those, 55 children were in the vehicle involved in the crash while 119 were outside the vehicle.

In 2015, Mark Rosekind, NHTSA administrator, noted in remarks to the National Association for Pupil Transportation that the NHTSA was changing its position and recommending that every child on a school bus have a three-point seat belt.

"The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives," Rosekind said. "That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus. And saving lives is what we are about."

It is not clear whether the vehicle involved in the Colorado school bus accident had seat belts, but Colorado is not one of the five states that currently require seat belts on newer school buses. Those states—California, New York, Texas, Florida, and New Jersey—require all new school buses to have some form of seat belt, though not necessarily a three-point seat belt. Some districts in Colorado say they are looking into seat belts on school buses to protect students, even without the state making it a requirement.

In the same address, Rosekind noted the NHTSA would launch research projects to improve data regarding school bus safety, examine ways to make seat belts available to all students and reach out to the six states that already have laws requiring seat belts on buses to find out how they have overcome financial obstacles to installing seat belts on all buses.

 Contact a School Bus Accident Attorney 

The law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman has represented children injured in school bus accidents. If you or a loved one has been harmed in a school bus accident, contact one of our attorneys at 800-827-0087 for a no-obligation consultation to discuss your options.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Texas Hot Air Balloon Accident Kills 16

A hot air balloon carrying 16 people crashed in central Texas early Saturday morning, killing everyone onboard. The Texas hot air balloon accident happened near Lockhart in Caldwell County, which is roughly 30 miles south of Austin. The incident is the worst hot air balloon accident in U.S. history; never before has a hot air balloon crash in the U.S. resulted in so many fatalities.

Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride 

Passengers of the ill-fated balloon ride assembled at a WalMart parking lot at 5:45 a.m. on Saturday morning to catch a van to the launch site for Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The hot air balloon was scheduled to depart with the sunrise at 6:49 a.m. for an hour-long ride. Authorities say the balloon was delayed for unknown reasons and ended up departing at around 7:10 a.m.

Once airborne, the hot air balloon travelled for about eight miles before something went wrong. Officials believe the balloon clipped power lines adjacent to a field at around 7:42 a.m. A 911 call was placed around a minute later. The balloon’s passenger basket (known as a gondola) came to rest just under a mile away from the balloon (known as an envelope).

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Robert Sumwalt told reporters that a fire had broken out on the hot air balloon before it fell to the ground. At this time, it is unclear whether the fire happened before the hot air balloon hit the power lines or after.
Local resident Margaret Wylie told USA TODAY she was taking her dog out at around 7:40 a.m. when she heard a loud “pop, pop, pop.” When she looked around she saw a “fireball going up,” noting that the top of the flames nearly reached the power lines.

What Caused the Texas Hot Air Balloon Accident? 

Officials with the NTSB are in the early stages of what will likely be a lengthy investigation into the cause of the Texas hot air balloon accident. As of now, the NTSB’s “working hypothesis” is that the hot air balloon made contact with the power lines, which likely severed the envelope from the gondola. This sent the gondola and the 16 people inside plummeting to the ground.

Victims of the Texas Hot Air Balloon Accident Identified

While most of the victims have not been formally identified, families and friends of loved ones who died in the hot air balloon crash have begun to memorialize the victims on the internet. Below are some of victims that have been identified by media reports:

·      Alfred “Skip” Nichols (pilot) – Nichols’ identity was confirmed by Alan Lirette, the ground crew supervisor with Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. Nichols was the owner and operator of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. Lirette described Nichols as a “great pilot.”

·      Joe Owens and Tresa Shafer Owens – The couple from Katy, Texas, “adored their children and grandchildren,” according to a GoFundMe page that has been set up in their honor to cover funeral expenses. The page says Tresa was a preschool teacher at TigerLane Preschool.

·      Paige Brabson and Lorilee Brabson - Paige and her mother, Lorilee were San Antonio residents. The trip on the hot air balloon was a gift that Paige had given her mother on Mother’s Day. Paige leaves behind a newborn child.

·      Sunday and Matt Rowan – The College Station couple had recently married in February. Matt was a professor and burn treatment researcher. Sunday was mother to a five-year-old boy.

·      Brian and Tressie Neill – The San Antonio couple were married for 23 years. According to a GoFundMe page, Brian surprised his wife with the hot air balloon trip. While the two of them were in the air, Brian sent his brother a photo of the view from the air, asking, “can you see our reflection in the clouds?”

Texas Hot Air Balloon Accident Investigation 

According to the NTSB, the Texas hot air balloon accident investigation will focus on the operation of the balloon, the training and in-flight actions of pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols, and the operator, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.

Another point of emphasis for investigators will be the ground crew for Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, which will be interviewed by the NTSB on Monday. Among the many questions that will need to be answered is why the hot air balloon was delayed for 20 minutes before departure.

According to Sumwalt, the weather at the time of departure in San Marcos (six miles away from crash site) was overcast with visibility of two miles. Sumwalt has said it is too early to speculate if weather played a role in the Texas hot air balloon accident.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found 14 electronic devices that belonged to a number of the victims at the scene of the Texas hot air balloon crash, including cell phones, an iPad and three cameras. According to CNN, Nichols used and iPad and a cell phone to communicate with the ground crew during each trip. Investigators are hoping that images or videos taken from these devices will help to uncover what went wrong in the moments prior to the deadly hot air balloon crash.

More Regulation Needed for Hot Air Balloons 

According to Dean Carlton, president of the Balloon Federation of America, as many as half a million people in the U.S. ride in hot air balloons every year. An estimated 200 large hot air balloon tour operators provide services throughout the country, along with hundreds of other smaller businesses.

Since 1964, the NTSB has investigated 800 hot air balloon accidents in the U.S., including 71 of which were fatal. These accidents are commonly caused by weather conditions like wind and crashing into power lines.
In 2013, 19 people died in a balloon crash in Egypt; the deadliest recorded hot air balloon crash in history. A year later, the NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to tighten the regulations on hot air balloon operators, citing “operational deficiencies.”

In her 2014 letter to the FAA, the NTSB’s former chair Deborah Hersman pointed out that balloon gondolas can carry upwards of 20 people, opening the door to a high number of deaths if a safety deficiency leads to an accident. Hersman recommended that balloon operators be required to have letters of authorization in order to provide tour flights, making them no different than tour helicopter pilots, for example.

The FAA responded to the NTSB’s recommendation, saying the proposed letters of authorization “would not result in significantly higher levels of operational safety.”

“The investigation and prosecution of this disaster must include a review of the oversight and licensing of hot air balloon companies,” says personal injury attorney Ilyas Akbari of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman. “How many more deaths will it take before the FAA finally acts on the NTSB’s warnings? These operations routinely charge more per person than many airline tickets, with virtually zero oversight. Our hearts go out to the families of those lost in this horrific tragedy.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Greyhound Bus Accident Shows Driver Fatigue is a Serious Safety Issue

A new investigation has revealed that Greyhound, North America’s largest bus carrier, is not enforcing a key safety rule. Bus driver fatigue has become a serious issue for the company, which transports an estimated 18 million passengers some 5.5 billion miles on an annual basis. If safety is supposed to be a priority for Greyhound, why isn’t the company enforcing its own driver fatigue rules?

Driver Fatigue a Factor in Recent Greyhound Bus Accident 

Passengers aboard a Greyhound bus heading to Cleveland from New York bus began to worry early in the morning of October 9, 2013. Back in New York, the bus driver had appeared to have red eyes while passengers were boarding the bus. One passenger recalled seeing her doze off behind the wheel at one point. Others recalled the bus fishtailing for miles.

It was a little after 1:30 a.m. when the Greyhound bus viciously rear-ended a tractor trailer on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania. The impact ejected a passenger onto the interstate. One person was killed and dozens sustained injuries in a Greyhound bus accident that could have been avoided, if not for the reoccurring issues with driver fatigue. 

The most recent fatigue-related Greyhound bus accident happened back in January of this year near San Jose, California. The bus driver told the California Highway Patrol officials that he was feeling tired before the bus crash, which killed two people and injured others.

Rule G-40: The Bus Driver Fatigue Rule

Driver fatigue isn’t just a Greyhound issue—it has been a longstanding problem for the bus industry as a whole. According to CNN, a 2012 study showed that bus driver fatigue was a factor in roughly 36 percent of all bus accidents in the country.

Fatigue among truck drivers is also a problem. Like bus drivers, truckers occasionally work very long hours through the night, compromising their circadian rhythms. Truckers are also at high risk for developing obstructive sleep apnea. Despite the concern over truck driver fatigue, the trucking industry has dragged its feet on regulation to combat the problem.

As for Greyhound, the company does have a policy in place to combat fatigue. The Greyhound driver rulebook says bus drivers are supposed to stop every 150 miles (the equivalent of roughly two hours and thirty minutes driving time) to stretch, move around and check the vehicle’s tires.

The problem, according to CNN’s Greyhound driver fatigue investigation, is that this rule is merely a guideline for drivers—it isn’t enforced by the company. A review of Greyhound’s posted routes found that many do not include scheduled stops every 150 miles. The route from New York to Cleveland, for example, does not have a required stop every 150 miles.

In a court deposition, Greyhound CEO David Leach testified that it is up to the drivers themselves whether or not they follow the 150 miles rule—the company doesn’t enforce the rule meant to keep people safe from Greyhound driver fatigue. Worse yet, Leach acknowledged that some routes could allow for drivers to stay behind the wheel for over 300 miles without stopping. When asked if he would be okay with his drivers remaining behind the wheel for 333 miles without a break, Leach said in the deposition that “it would be fine” with him.

In the 2013 Greyhound bus accident in Pennsylvania, bus driver Sabrina Anderson never took a break. She was 178 miles into the journey when the bus crashed.

Elora Lencoski was 18 years old at the time of the fatal Greyhound bus accident in Pennsylvania. The last thing she remembers prior to the bus crash is telling her friend ‘good night.’ Her next memory is waking up in a hospital screaming.

Lencoski had a hard time remembering where she was during her stay in the hospital, after suffering a traumatic brain injury and injuries to her neck and leg. She is one of many passengers harmed during the Greyhound bus accident, who are suing the company, claiming the driver was too fatigued to drive.

Another passenger, a man that lost a leg in the 2013 Greyhound bus accident, filed a lawsuit against Greyhound, claiming the bus company “demonstrated reckless indifference to the safety” of its passengers and drivers. The jury sided with the plaintiff, blaming Greyhound for providing “contradictory language in their rules and training” in regards to Greyhound driver fatigue levels, and for not enforcing the company’s own rules. He was awarded $23 million, and an additional $4 million in punitive damages. The jury also tacked on an additional $150 to remind Greyhound to enforce its own 150 mile-rule.

How Will the Bus Industry React to the CNN Greyhound Investigation? 

This, of course, is the big question. Greyhound refused to comment on the CNN story, and instead issued a statement saying the company has “an excellent safety record” and continues “to improve our safety program.” According to the Department of Transportation, Greyhound has a “satisfactory” safety record.

Deborah Hersman, who formerly chaired the National Transportation Safety Board, says crashes involving overnight bus operators concerned her and the agency greatly. Hersman believes the risk involved with these overnight trips is tremendous because the driver is forced to remain awake and vigilant at a time when there is biological pressure to sleep.

"I would never pull an all-nighter with my family in the car, knowing what I know about fatigue and night risks, never," says Hersman. We’ll just have to wait and see if the bus industry—and specifically Greyhound—feels the same as Hersman and chooses to address driver fatigue.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

GAO Study: DOD Not Properly Evaluating Truck Companies Hauling ‘Security-Sensitive Materials’

Do you drive any differently when sharing the highway with a truck hauling gasoline? What if you knew the truck in the lane next to you was hauling explosives…how would your driving change then?

Driving a commercial truck is a high-stress, difficult job as it is, but when truckers haul security-sensitive materials like explosives, missiles or ammunition, the job becomes far more stressful and downright dangerous, not just for the truck drivers themselves, but for the rest of us sharing the road with them.

In the fiscal year 2014, the Department of Defense (DOD) facilitated the transport of nearly 50,000 separate shipments of security-sensitive materials within the continental United States. DOD contracts with private-sector trucking companies to haul this sensitive material.

Not just any trucking company can haul security-sensitive materials—the Department of Defense uses safety performance data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) as well as its own internal inspections to evaluate whether or not carriers can properly transport high-risk material in accordance with the Transportation Protective Service (TPS) program. In other words, there are requirements that carriers have to meet and maintain in order to continue earning contracts to haul security sensitive materials for the government.

The question is, how stringent are these requirements?

According to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the DOT safety performance information that DOD relies on to evaluate the safety performance of commercial motor carriers that transport security sensitive materials under the TPS program simply isn’t sufficient or reliable.

DOT uses data from crash investigations, roadside inspections and other sources in order to create safety ratings for commercial truck carriers. These scores are known as Safety Measurement System (SMS) scores.

SMS scores track a carrier’s safety performance in several key areas, including hazardous materials compliance and vehicle maintenance. The scores can range anywhere from zero to 100 (a score of 100 would be the worst relative safety performance score, a zero would be the best relative safety performance score).

The GAO report stated that between November 2012 and October 2014, DOD contracted with 55 TPS carriers. Of those, seven did not even have a DOT safety rating. Twelve others had DOT safety ratings that were 20 years or older.

DOD conducts its own internal inspections of TPS carriers (using contractors), partially compensating for this issue, and officials with DOD told GAO that all inspected carriers passed. However, the GAO report maintains that DOD is not using readily available violation data to evaluate TPS carriers. For example, DOD doesn’t review data on violations related to the use of controlled substances among drivers who transport hazardous materials. Without reviewing the available violation data, DOD is not in a position to effectively evaluate the carriers it contracts to transport security-sensitive material, the report says.

Furthermore, while DOD does collect data stemming from incidents involving the carriers it contracts with, it doesn’t evaluate the data to determine if systemic trends and/or patterns are linked to safety risks. It also doesn’t fully investigate incidents to determine root causes, which doesn’t allow for appropriate safety recommendations to be made in the wake of an incident (or series of related incidents).

Crawfordville, Georgia - Truck Transporting Explosives Catches Fire 

In September of 2014, a truck caught fire while transporting explosives just outside of Crawfordville, Georgia. The truck’s trailer was scorched and the tires were completely burned off in the incident. Luckily (more precisely, miraculously), no injuries were reported in this incident. 

A DOD investigation into the Crawfordville incident didn’t begin until February of this year—more than four months after the fire occurred. Think of the implications…how can a thorough investigation of an incident like this provide definitive results when so many variables were allowed to change in the span of all that time?

The investigation report did not identify whether there was any damage to the explosive materials in the trailer, which is unsettling in and of itself. While the report on the Crawfordville incident contained findings, conclusions, and recommendations, the DOD contractor that investigated the incident failed to determine the cause of the incident because “no one was required to search for the root cause,” according to the GAO report. Officials with the U.S. Army agreed that the investigation was not completed because the cause was never identified.

Huson, Montana - Trailer Fire 

In December of 2014, a trailer hauling security-sensitive materials caught fire in Huson, Montana. Again, it took months for a DOD investigation to begin.

A DOD report on the investigation did not contain the cause of the incident, findings or conclusions on what caused the fire, nor did the report include recommendations on corrective steps to be taken for preventing similar incidents from occurring.

17,280 Hand Grenades in a Broken Down Tractor Trailer 

In May 2012, a truck driver that was hauling 17,280 hand grenades had to make an unscheduled stop to repair satellite equipment. It was later revealed and reported that the DOD transportation officer who inspected the truck knew that the satellite equipment was not working before the truck driver left the loading dock. For arms, ammunition, and explosives and other security-sensitive shipments that require satellite equipment, DOD requires an inspector to ensure that the satellite equipment is operable as part of the inspection prior to materials being loaded onto the truck.

The GAO report found that TPS carriers hauling high-risk materials experienced mechanical breakdowns on 749 occasions between 2011 and 2014. In nearly all of these breakdowns, the truck was stopped and out of service for more than 2 hours.

It’s Not What We Know…It’s What We Don’t Know That Frightens Us 

This is the heart of the problem—there are so many unknowns surrounding how and why these incidents involving security-sensitive shipments are happening. DOD doesn’t know if contracted carriers are truly safe because it isn’t asking the right questions, nor is it utilizing all of the resources it has to properly monitor and evaluate them. It also isn’t in a position to see if there are any trends pinpointing why carrier incidents are happening because subsequent investigations are inadequate.

The GAO’s recommendations to DOD make sense:

-     Address what actions need to be undertaken when carriers have absent or dated safety ratings, or if poor safety scores exist.
-     Document the consequences to be enforced in the event that carriers fail to meet program requirements.
-     Require reviews of available violation data.
-     Fully investigate incidents.

The consequences of doing nothing to address these concerns will not just affect highway safety, it’ll also affect our national security. With the ever-present threat of terrorism in the public consciousness, no one is comfortable knowing there are serious safety issues that aren’t being addressed in the transportation of security-sensitive materials across the country.