If a catastrophe can’t be avoided, how much can a bus company do in advance, to insure the survival of its passengers?
Two deadly accidents, each involving a commercial truck and a passenger bus, happened in California this spring. The April collision is probably most familiar to American news readers, as the resulting fire was caught on camera. The May 21 wreck happened late at night in a remote area.
On April 10 in Orland, a FedEx truck on southbound Interstate five crossed the middle of the highway into oncoming traffic. It ran head-on into a charter bus carrying high school students to Humboldt State University for a weekend tour. Both drivers, five students and three adult chaperones died in the crash and resulting fire.
The May 21 multi-vehicle incident began around 2:15 a.m. just west of Blythe, California, near the Arizona border. A semi-tractor flatbed operated by VG Transport was headed east on Interstate Ten, loaded with dozens of pipes up to fifty feet long.
The night was illuminated by a half moon, and the highway had no lighting.
The California Highway Patrol reports that the driver, whom they did not identify, tried to pass a slower vehicle in a 70 MPH zone. In doing so, he drifted off the pavement and lost control. The truck jackknifed and released its cargo, blocking both lanes in each direction.
Two eastbound vehicles struck the pipes within seconds. None of the occupants were hurt. A minute or two later, an eastbound bus struck the pipes. A California Highway patrolman reports that the bus driver “saw some debris and veered to the right.”
The bus slid down a shallow embankment, rolling on its side. Four passengers died, and twenty were injured, at least seven seriously.
In each of these tragedies, neither bus driver had much time to react to a hazard presented by another vehicle. The Orland tragedy has so far initiated four lawsuits, with many more to come. The Blythe crash has yet to be brought to court, although the press has published safety records on both commercial vehicles involved.
Federal safety records show that the VG Transport flatbed that jackknifed in Blythe was the only truck owned by the Rialto, California outfit. VG Transport has not been involved in any crashes reported to state officials over the past two years, during which time the truck passed three inspections. A driver was not allowed to finish a trip after one of the inspections. California Department of Motor Vehicles records show that the registration for the 2006 Freightliner expired in January.
The name of the truck driver has not been released. Victor Esteban Galvan is listed as the contact for VG Transport. The Riverside Press-Enterprise reported that according to federal records, in a random inspection in October 2013, Galvan had an expired medical certificate, and had driven eight hours without a break. His truck had been operating without undergoing periodic inspections.
The bus that overturned in Blythe was operated by El Paso-Los Angeles Limousine Express Inc., and was driving from El Paso to Los Angeles when it crashed. The driver had taken over the route in Phoenix. In its last federal inspection in February, the bus company received a “satisfactory” safety rating. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show the company’s 55 vehicles have been involved in five collisions since June 2012, with a total of one fatality.
According to company president Jerry Rosenbaum, “No one has made any allegations about the bus’s maintenance or the bus driver’s actions being contributing factors of this accident.”
The bus involved in the Orland collision and fire has not escaped scrutiny. Defendants in one lawsuit related to the Orland collision and fire include FedEx, Volvo and Silverado Stages, the charter bus company. (The FedEx truck that crossed the median was a 2007 Volvo.) The family of 18-year-old Ismael Jimenez filed a wrongful death suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in May. Jiminez helped other passengers escape the fire that resulted from the impact, leaving himself no time to escape. He died at the scene.
Other plaintiffs filed two related lawsuits in Los Angeles County Superior Court in May, against FedEx and Silverado Stages. The mother of 17-year-old victim Jennifer Bonilla filed a wrongful death suit, which includes the allegation that the 2014 motor coach had inadequate exit doors.
18-year-old Miles Hill escaped the fire by kicking out a bus window, but still burns and a broken collarbone. His attorney claims the charter company had not ensured emergency evacuation procedures were in place, and had failed to explain these procedures to its passengers.
The Orland crash lawsuits may be in court for months or years. In the end, will they have any effect in how bus companies operate, or how buses are built?