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U.S. to investigate tour bus industry following New York crash

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Fatal tour bus crash in New York
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Schumer: NTSB investigation will yield greater safety standards
  • Rep. Velazquez: Probe will restore consumer confidence in low-cost tour buses
  • N.Y. governor has ordered investigation into how the driver got a commercial license
  • Two passengers have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits
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(CNN) -- The National Transportation Safety Board will probe part of the country's tour bus industry in the wake of a deadly crash in New York last month, two lawmakers announced Sunday.

The NTSB will "launch a broad investigation into the entire safety regime that governs the low-cost tour bus industry," Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nydia Velazquez said.

The two New York Democrats said the decision is the result of their urging following a March 12 accident that killed 15 people.

"March's bus crash was a tragedy for New York, but these passengers did not have to die in vain," Schumer said in a statement Sunday. "A full and comprehensive review of this industry and the safety regulations governing it will no doubt lead to greater safety standards for the thousands of passengers who use these buses every week."

"By ensuring NTSB thoroughly reviews how this industry is regulated, we can keep passengers safe, while restoring consumers' confidence in this type of travel," Velazquez said in the statement.

A similar NTSB review of airline safety "led to major improvements," the joint statement by the lawmakers' offices said.

Schumer has also asked New York state's Department of Motor Vehicles to re-examine all drivers of low-cost tour buses for previous safety violations and suspended licenses.

If such an audit had taken place before the March 12 crash, it would have shown that the driver "shouldn't have been behind the wheel," Schumer said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered an investigation into how the driver in the crash, Ophadell Williams, got a commercial license despite having a poor driving record and previous convictions of grand larceny and manslaughter.

Records on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website showed that the bus line involved -- World Wide Travel -- was involved in a crash in New York in 2009 that resulted in one injury and a crash in New Jersey in 2010 resulting in another.

The company has been cited five times for "fatigued driving" between December 2009 and October 2010 -- twice in New Jersey, twice in Pennsylvania and once in Connecticut, records show.

Police said Williams told investigators that the incident occurred the morning of March 12 after he swerved to avoid a tractor-trailer that might have clipped the bus. The bus then flipped on its side and smashed into poles, which cut through two-thirds of the vehicle.

Williams has not been charged. His license was suspended on March 17 after the Department of Motor Vehicles turned over to investigators driver license applications that allegedly contained false statements.

Two survivors of the Bronx bus accident have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the bus company and against Williams. Yuke Chue Lo and Erold Jean Marie are suing World Wide Tours and Williams for $20 million and $200 million, respectively.

Both passengers' court papers allege negligence on the part of the bus operating company for allowing Williams behind the wheel, with that resulting in the deadly crash on March 12. They also allege that Williams was speeding and fell asleep while driving.

Williams' lawyer, Sean H. Rooney, has denied that his client fell asleep behind the wheel. He also said Williams does not drink, smoke or use drugs and had passed three Breathalyzer tests and given a blood sample following the crash.

Rooney called his client an "easy target," but insisted that he is "a decent person."

The case has shone light on safety questions surrounding the industry.

On one day in March, the state Department of Transportation inspected 14 buses and found violations in every case -- either vehicle violations, which took the buses out of service, or driver violations or both, said agency spokeswoman Deborah Sturm Rausch.

The nine driver violations could include anything from a driver with an out-of-date license to one who had logged too many hours on the road, Rausch said.

On another day in March, random roadside inspections of 36 commercial buses by troopers resulted in 10 drivers being removed from their buses by their companies and eight traffic tickets issued. None of the vehicles inspected was found inoperable, according to the New York State Department of Transportation.