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NTSB Questions How Much Sleep Driver In Fatal Bus Accident Had Gotten

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The driver involved in a deadly New York bus crash last year may not have had the sleep he claimed in the days prior to the accident, according to evidence gathered by federal investigators.

Federal safety officials have previously expressed concern about the prevalence of operator fatigue in all modes of transportation, including the motorcoach industry, which transports more than 700 million passengers a year in the U.S.– roughly the same as the domestic airlines.

During the three days before the March 12, 2011, accident, driver Ophadell Williams’ cellphone and rental car were in almost continuous use during the daytime hours when he had said he was sleeping, National Transportation Safety Board documents released Thursday show.

The NTSB had previously determined that a tour bus driven by Williams was traveling at 78 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone when it hit a barrier and traveled 480 feet as it fell over. Then it slid into a vertical sign support that sheared the bus in half from front to back at the window line. Of the 32 passengers on the bus, 15 were killed and the rest injured, some severely. The bus was returning to Manhattan’s Chinatown from an overnight trip to a Connecticut casino. Williams has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

Williams told investigators that he has no trouble sleeping. The documents quote him as saying, “I go right to bed and drop.”

Three days before the accident, Williams rented an SUV from Zipcar, which accumulated 228 miles during his off-duty hours, according to data downloaded from car’s telematics unit, which records when the ignition is on and how many miles are driven.

A hot dog vendor in Nassau County, N.Y., interviewed by police recalled serving Williams, whom he identified from a picture, and that he drove a Zipcar.

Williams also talked frequently on his cellphone while driving the bus, and the phone numbers he called while on duty match the numbers called during the hours when he had claimed to be sleeping, according to the documents.

Fatigue can be a problem for any driver on the road overnight, especially between the hours of 4 and 6 a.m. when the human body’s circadian rhythms– physical and behavioral changes that respond to light and darkness– are telling the brain to sleep, according to sleep experts.

Williams’ work schedules the week of the accident called for him to pick up passengers in the evening, arrive at the casino between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., and then rest for a few hours while passengers were inside gambling. He would then drive back to New York, leaving between 3 and 6 a.m. and arriving about 9 or 10 a.m., the documents show.

Williams told investigators he would sleep with his feet stretched across two seats while the bus was parked outside the casino. He also claimed he slept four to six hours a day during the day, documents show. Those are the same hours when his cell phone and rental car were getting peak usage, according to a chart created by investigators.

Williams and his attorney didn’t reply to questions from investigators about whether anyone else had access to his cell phone or rental car during those three days. The attorney, Sean Rooney, didn’t return phone calls from The Associated Press.
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Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
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National Transportation Safety Board http://www.ntsb.gov

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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