NTSB finds speed a factor in deadly 2020 Pennsylvania crash

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that a motorcoach’s loss of control due to unsafe speed led to the deadly multi-vehicle crash near Mount Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 5, 2020. 

“The motorcoach was traveling too fast on a wet roadway while in a descending curve,” said Kenneth Bragg, the NTSB’s human performances group chairman. “The driver’s failure to reduce speed on the wet roadway contributed to the loss of control, which initiated the crash.”

He joined the United Motorcoach Association Town Hall on Feb.10 to discuss the findings of the investigation, which took nearly two years to complete.

Motorcoach traveling over speed limit

The early morning chain-reaction crash involved a motorcoach, two UPS tractor-trailers, a FedEx tractor-trailer and a car. Five people were killed and 50 were injured. Video captured by cameras on the FedEx truck was key to investigators piecing together the sequence of events leading to the crash.

It showed the motorcoach passing the truck at over 77 miles per hour, said Bragg, adding that “less than a minute later, the motorcoach ran off the road overturned, and that started the beginning of a pretty long chain of events.”

The January crash killed five and injured 50, and involved a number of vehicles, including a motorcoach, multiple tractor trailers, and a car. (Courtesy: NTSB)

The motorcoach, carrying 59 passengers, was traveling around a curve at night and in light snow. It ran off the right side of the road, hit the adjacent embankment and overturned, blocking both westbound lanes and shoulders of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Within seconds, two trucks towing semitrailers that were following the motorcoach hit it. 

A westbound car and another truck towing a semitrailer drove off the road to avoid the wreckage and came to rest wedged side by side against each other. The motorcoach driver, two passengers, and the driver and co-driver of the second truck died in the crash. Those injured included 49 motorcoach passengers and the co-driver of the first truck.

Sign advised 55 mph limit

The NTSB found during its investigation the regulatory speed limit on the turnpike was 70 mph. An advisory speed sign of 55 mph, posted at the curve where the crash occurred, recommended that motorists reduce their speed before entering.

The motorcoach driver entered the curve at 77 mph and struck the embankment at a speed of about 60 mph before overturning. The first truck hit the motorcoach at a speed of about 21 mph, causing minor damage. The second truck crashed into the first truck and the motorcoach, causing catastrophic damage; its last recorded speed was 56 mph. 

The high initial and impact speed of the second truck contributed to the severity of the crash, Bragg said. 

The report emphasized that variable speed limit signs might have prevented or mitigated the crash. Also, advanced speed-limiting technology in vehicles could help commercial vehicle drivers avoid exceeding speed limits. Further, connected vehicle technology, if installed on the trucks, might have prevented or mitigated the crashes, the NTSB concluded.

Safety recommendations forwarded

Based on the findings of the investigation, the NTSB issued safety recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

NTSB issued additional safety recommendations to the American Trucking Associations, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, American Bus Association, the United Motorcoach Association, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the FedEx Ground Package System, United Parcel Service of America, the Transport Workers Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. 

The recommendations address issues including excessive speed on wet pavement, the lack of standards for commercial vehicle collision avoidance, mitigation systems to enhance safety (including forward collision avoidance systems and connected vehicle technology) and onboard video event recorder systems for commercial vehicles.

The motorcoach was returning from a pickup in New York City and was headed to Cincinnati when the crash occurred. There wasn’t enough data to determine whether driver fatigue played a role. The motorcoach was 10 miles from its next stop, where another driver was scheduled to take over the route.

“He’d been driving just seven hours. Because we were unable to identify the exact hours that the driver slept, we did not account this as fatigue as a factor,” said Bragg, adding that his rapidly rotating schedule raised red flags about whether he had enough time to get quality sleep.

The motorcoach driver was cited for speeding 24 miles away from the crash location about five months earlier, and the driver had previously been involved in two minor crashes, one while operating a motorcoach, according to the report. 

NTSB calls for cameras on vehicles

The motorcoach driver was properly licensed and medically certified. He had worked for the company for about nine months but had a total of 11 years of driving experience in the United States, and longer in his native country of China.

“We are using this case to advance the call for inward and outward-facing cameras on commercial vehicles,” said Bragg, adding that NTSB is advocating for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate the cameras.

All three trucks involved were equipped with forward collision avoidance systems. The system on the second truck was inoperative at the time of the crash because of a misalignment in the radar on which the system depended.

“This is a supporting technology by a lot of manufacturers, and we think it offers a lot of promise in reducing or eliminating vehicle crashes,” Bragg said. 

An abstract of the final report, which includes the findings, probable cause and all safety recommendations, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xtGGs. 

Bragg’s presentation at UMA Town Hall is available here.


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