Was the Oregon Bus Crash Preventable?

Failing to learn from past experience: was the Korean tour company’s Oregon bus crash preventable?

Oregon bus crash

Photo by Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian

With a heavy heart, I read about Sunday’s tragic bus crash on Interstate 84 near Pendleton, Oregon, which killed nine people and injured many more, all apparently tourists on a bus tour conducted by a Korean travel company (the Mi Joo Tour and Travel Company).  With relatives in the Pendleton, Oregon area, and having litigated bus roll-over cases as a personal injury attorney, I have traveled this section of road many, many times, during both winter and summer.  In the summer, under even the best of conditions, the westbound section of Interstate 84, with its treacherous downhill grade and convex curves, is concerning and requires great caution.  In the wintertime, it demands ultimate respect, with safe driving often requiring chains and speeds as low as ten (10) or fifteen (15) miles per hour.  One will often see professional drivers literally creeping at walking speeds as they drive westbound down I-84’s Deadman’s Pass in the far right-hand lane (the lane farthest from the steep ravines), with hazard lights flashing.

The saddest part of this bus crash, is the knowledge that it was most likely preventable.  While the NTSB investigation will undoubtedly reveal some (but often not all) of the possible causes of this tragic bus crash, the immediate questions that come to mind are:

  • Was the driver familiar with this stretch of roadway?  If not, why not, and was the driver properly warned about the particularly dangerous sections of roadway on a route with which he may have been unfamiliar?
  • Was the driver properly qualified, trained, and experienced for wintertime driving over icy mountain passes?
  • Was the bus traveling slowly enough under the then existing weather conditions, as required by law and as demanded by this particular stretch of roadway?
  • Did the driver radio dispatch ahead of time for current road reports to assess whether other drivers had experienced black ice?
  • Why didn’t the guard-rail do its job and stop the bus?
  • What was the impact speed with the guardrail?
  • Were proper safety precautions taken on the vehicle itself, such as: using chains, ensuring proper tread depth and consistent tire and brake pressure?
  • Was this particular make and model of bus suitable for wintertime conditions in the Northwest, did it meet U.S., Oregon and Washington safety requirements, and was it properly maintained?
  • Did the Korean travel company place profits ahead of people in choosing to hire a driver based on Korean language skills rather than one most familiar with safely navigating the mountain passes between Las Vegas and Vancouver, B.C.?

The last bus roll-over case I handled occurred within a very short distance of this particular accident, under similar black ice conditions.  It, unfortunately, was entirely preventable, and chances are good that this one was too.  My client, a young girl returning from a chartered ski trip with the Special Olympics, boarded a bus on her way home to the Tri-Cities.  The charter bus driver proceeded through black ice conditions without chaining up, despite previously noticing slippery roadways and other cars stopping to put on chains.  Most of the claims have now settled, and it’s unfortunate that lessons from that case were not learned and applied in this case.

As a father, my heart goes out to all those who lost loved ones in this accident.  As an attorney, I’m furious that needless deaths and injuries happened on such a well-known, dangerous section of roadway demanding ultimate caution.