The National Transportation Safety Board has issued its report regarding the 2016 San Jose bus crash that took two lives and injured 13 more people. Although witnesses at the time suggested the Greyhound bus driver might have fallen asleep, and the NTSB did note driving conditions may have been a factor, the agency ultimately blamed inadequate road markings for the preventable tragedy. Regardless of who is at fault, the consequences of a catastrophic bus crash are often felt by victims and their families a long time after.
San Jose Bus Crash Killed Two
The San Jose bus crash happened in the early hours of January 19, 2016, when a bus traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco, California, rolled onto its side on Highway 101 near the Highway 85 connector. Prior to the accident, the bus merged with the carpool lane, collided with yellow protection barriers, and flipped onto its side.
The 2014 MCI D4505 motorcoach was operated by Greyhound Lines Inc. Onboard were the driver and 20 passengers. According to the NTSB preliminary report, the bus landed on its right side on top of a concrete barrier. Two passengers died when they were ejected from the bus. The driver and 12 other passengers suffered injuries. Although the bus had lap and shoulder seat belts, many of the passengers were not wearing them at the time of the crash.
NTSB: Lack of Markings Caused California Bus Crash
Despite rainy conditions and a reportedly tired driver, the NTSB says the crash was caused by a lack of reflective warning markers that would have alerted the driver he was headed into a concrete barrier instead of a separate lane. Because that barrier was not properly marked, the driver, 58-year-old Gary Bonslater, thought he was driving towards a left-hand exit lane. The NTSB blamed this error on Caltrans, for failing to mark the area with stripes or chevrons that could have been seen in the dark.
“In the rainy darkness of the early morning, with worn and missing highway markings, the driver thought he was in the exit lane,” the NTSB said. “In fact, he was in the adjacent gore, the paved area between the main lane and the exit lane. Ahead of him was the unmarked, energy-absorbing barrier called a crash attenuator, and ahead of the attenuator was the concrete barrier.”
When it issued its report, the NTSB called the San Jose bus crash preventable, noting that both the lack of reflectors and passengers not wearing their seatbelts contributed to the severity of the accident. In fact, only two passengers were wearing seatbelts; neither of them were injured in the bus accident.
“This crash did not have to happen because the barrier that the bus hit should have been visible, even in the bad weather, but it was not,” said NTSB Acting Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr in a statement. “Moreover, the crash would probably have resulted in fewer deaths and injuries if the occupants had worn their seat belts.”
The two passengers who died in the San Jose bus crash were Fely Olivera, who was 51 at the time of the crash, and Maria De Jesus Ortiz Velasquez, who was 76.
Witnesses Described Horrific Greyhound Bus Crash
Among the survivors of the San Jose bus crash was Alex Ehlers, who said the accident sounded like lightning hitting the bus.
“Then I just heard people yelling, people screaming, smoke coming from the rear of the bus,” Ehlers told reporters. As he escaped from the bus, he saw people lying face down in the concrete. Witnesses, meanwhile, said most people on the bus were sleeping when the crash occurred.
California Highway Patrol told reporters that the bus driver said he was tired and got coffee during a stop. Despite that fatigue, however, the bus driver was not faulted in the accident.
NTSB Issues Recommendations in Wake of Bus Accident
Among the recommendations, the NTSB issued in its report were that Caltrans paint chevrons in gore areas and improve left-exit signs. The agency also recommended Greyhound warn passengers about the importance of wearing seatbelts.
Caltrans has reportedly not responded to the NTSB’s report.
California Officials Propose Legislation Regarding Seatbelts in Buses
Following the San Jose bus crash, California State Senator Jerry Hill introduced legislation that would require bus drivers and passengers to wear their seatbelts. California’s Transportation and Housing Committee voted 12-0 for the Senate Bill 20, which has now been sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Federal regulations require bus drivers to wear seatbelts, but the requirement is not in state law, making it unenforceable,” Hill said in a statement. “What’s the point of a seatbelt if passengers and drivers aren’t required to wear them?”
Currently, new buses must be equipped with seatbelts—although older buses are not required to have them—there is no law that mandates passengers use seatbelts.
Under Senate Bill 20, not only would passengers be required to wear safety belts, bus operators would be required to maintain the safety belts in working order and inform passengers that they are required to wear them. The proposed law would not apply to school buses.