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Utah bus crash prompts DOT-ordered safety review

Utah bus crash prompts DOT-ordered safety review

By Joan Lowy, AP Writer | Posted - Apr. 30, 2009 at 11:38 a.m.

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday ordered a review of bus safety in response to a Utah crash in January 2008 that killed nine people and injured 43 others returning from a weekend ski trip.

The Transportation Department said that a plan to improve motorcoach safety will be created from the findings of the review.

"Motorcoaches have been a safe form of transportation in the United States for many years, but even a single crash or accident is unacceptable," LaHood said in a statement.

The National Transportation Safety Board said at a hearing last week said the driver fatigue was the probable cause of the crash near Mexican Hat, Utah. The board also said that a protracted delay by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in implementing motorcoach safety recommendations made a decade ago contributed to the severity of the accident.

Those recommendations included strengthening motorcoach roofs and steps to keep passengers in their seats in event of a rollover, including possibly requiring seatbelts.

In the Utah crash, the roof of the bus was sheared off and everyone aboard except for the driver, who was wearing the only seatbelt on the bus, and one man who was pinned between two seats, was ejected from the bus.

Circumstances combined to worsen the accident. The bus was part of a charter of 17 motorcoaches carrying 800 people back to Phoenix from Telluride, Colo. Heavy snow forced the closure of a high mountain pass, requiring the buses to take a longer route through a remote area of Utah.

The driver, Welland Lotan, suffered from sleep apnea and had trouble using a device to regulate his breathing while sleeping in the days before the accident. He also had head congestion and may have been suffering from altitude sickness.

In the darkness and poor weather, and perhaps due to fatigue, Lotan took a wrong turn and was on a road that wasn't part of the intended route when the accident occurred. A passer-by drove eight miles to Mexican Hat, the nearest town, to call 911 on a telephone. Poor weather prevented medical helicopters from responding to the accident, and it was an hour after the accident before the first emergency crew arrived. The nearest hospital with a trauma unit was about 190 miles away in Flagstaff, Ariz.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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