No more charges against driver in fatal Utah bus crash
September 8, 2009
SALT LAKE CITY – No additional charges will be filed against the driver of a bus that crashed near Mexican Hat in January 2008, killing nine people, the San Juan County attorney said.
County Attorney Craig Halls said the speed of the bus may not have been excessive.
A Utah Highway Patrol investigator reviewed video from the bus and found speed was not a factor in the crash that injured 43 people as they returned to Phoenix from a weekend ski trip in Telluride, Colo.
“We just think he flat ran off the road,” patrol Sgt. Rick Eldredge said last week.
Eldredge says he found the bus was traveling about five mph over the 65 mph speed limit. He said the investigation did not find behavior by driver Welland Lotan that would merit further charges.
An April report from the National Transportation Safety Board estimated the bus was traveling 88-92 mph when it rounded a bend on a rural two-lane Utah highway, crashed through a guardrail and rolled down an embankment.
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The NTSB said the probable cause of the accident was fatigue that led Lotan, who was then 71 years old, to underestimate his speed and slow his reaction time.
Lotan also 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.
Lotan pleaded no contest last year in San Juan County Justice Court to two class C misdemeanors – improper lane travel with an accident and a log book violation – and paid a $232 fine.
The NTSB also voted unanimously to place partial blame on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying the agency’s failure to implement motorcoach safety recommendations – which were made a decade ago – was a contributing factor in the crash’s severity.
Eldredge watched the video for landmarks, using them to calculate the speed of the bus. He says it was traveling between 68 mph and 70 mph in the seconds before the crash and that overall speed doesn’t appear to have a been a factor.
But NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak said the board stands by its speed estimate and that it used computers and studied various camera angles.
Lotan, of Michigan, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he has had a hard time handling the deaths.
“My heart goes out to them, and that’s all I can say,” he told the newspaper. “I’m still having a tough time putting my finger on what happened.”