RFTA bus driver likely to be cited in Highway 82 accident
The Aspen Times
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority driver who was piloting the bus that crashed and rolled on its side Saturday evening on Highway 82 between Basalt and Carbondale likely will be issued a citation for careless driving, a Colorado state trooper said Sunday.
The accident, which occurred around 7 p.m. Saturday, injured 11 people who required medical attention at hospitals in Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Three of the 11 injuries were serious, said Graham Thorne, of the Colorado State Patrol.
One woman who was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital has a broken collarbone and a deep laceration on her face, Thorne said. One of the riders taken to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs has broken ribs and a bruised lung. Another passenger who also was transported to Glenwood Springs has a broken collarbone and broken pelvis, he said.
“Our prayers and best wishes and thoughts are going out to the passengers and their families and friends,” said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. “We know this is difficult for them. Because of the way this (unfolded), we don’t know who they are. They should start contacting us if they have questions about insurance or anything else.”
Blankenship said he doesn’t know if RFTA is liable for medical bills, pointing out that some questions can be answered only at the conclusion of the state police investigation.
“We want to know who the passengers are,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t get the wheels in motion and do whatever we can to expedite things once we know where liability is going to be assigned.”
The bus was carrying 12 passengers on the westbound Aspen-to-Glenwood route when it came upon a slow-moving tractor ahead of it in the right lane, near mile marker 16, according to state police. The back of the tractor had running and flashing lights but not a slow-moving-vehicle emblem as is required by law, police said. Mile marker 16 is a few miles west of the El Jebel area, not far from the Cerise Ranch residential development and Alpine Animal Hospital.
The bus driver tried to avoid hitting the tractor with a quick move into the left lane, but he lost control and the bus began to skid. It passed the tractor, crossed the right lane and then struck a concrete barrier on the right shoulder. After hitting the barrier, the bus rolled and came to rest on its left side, police said.
Though the State Patrol investigation is continuing, Thorne said he believes it likely will show that the bus driver was speeding in a part of the highway that has a 65-mph limit. The driver suffered minor injuries but did not seek medical attention at either of the two area hospitals.
Both Thorne and Blankenship declined to provide the bus driver’s name, but Thorne said he might reveal his and the tractor driver’s identities today. Thorne said the tractor driver also is likely to be cited for driving too slow and for not displaying the emblem. He said he must discuss the matter with his supervisor before issuing tickets.
It does not appear that drugs or alcohol was a factor in the accident, Thorne said. The bus driver, as required by law, submitted a urine sample following the crash. Blankenship said it is likely to come back negative.
Blankenship said he was on the accident scene Saturday evening along with eight to 10 other RFTA employees. He said he hopes that a certain witness who also was on the scene but may not have given a statement to authorities comes forward with his account of the accident. Blankenship does not know the name of the witness, a Hispanic male with a goatee, but was told that he was following the bus and may have details that back up the bus driver’s version of events. Thorne confirmed that there are conflicting accounts of the accident.
The bus driver has not been suspended but will take a few days of administrative leave this week, with pay, to deal with the trauma, Blankenship said.
“This is a traumatic experience for the guy, and it might be better for him to take a few days to process it,” Blankenship said. “We’re hoping to get more information about the events that caused the accident before we decide what action to take. … We will pay him to regroup and assess his injuries before we expect him to go behind the wheel again.”
Blankenship said the driver has five years of experience driving for RFTA with what Blankenship believes is a good safety record. Blankenship said he doesn’t think the driver was speeding, and GPS data recorded 15 to 30 seconds before the crash show that the bus was traveling at 62 mph.
The bus has four or five interior video cameras and one exterior camera. But footage of the crash has yet to be viewed by RFTA officials because state police impounded the heavily damaged bus, Blankenship said.
“Whenever there is an accident and somebody is hurt, regardless of where the responsibility lies, our first concern is the welfare of the passengers,” he said. “It’s very traumatic. Injured passengers have a recovery to go through, and it’s a major event in their lives. We value our passengers.”
Overall, RFTA is one of the safest transportation options in the area, he said.
“We want to encourage people to use us, … but when something like this happens, we know that it puts questions in people’s minds, and we want to assure them that we’re doing everything we can to make our service as safe as possible, which is why we want to get at the facts and really find out what the root cause of this accident was. If there’s something we can do to prevent this in the future, we will do everything we can so that it doesn’t happen again.”
The bus was a large coach designed for regional travel with more than 50 seats, Blankenship said. It was not part of RFTA’s new bus-rapid-transit fleet.
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Basalt town government officials feared the worse when the coronavirus struck and soured the economy. They figured the town coffers would suffer a huge blow. Instead, sales tax collections have surged above the amount at this time last year.