Criminal Charges Brought Against Driver of Tour Bus That Crashed in Bronx Returning From Mohegan Sun Casino On Same Day as State Inspector Generals Report Released

The driver of the tour bus that crashed into a highway sign post on I-95 in the Bronx, killing 15 people and injuring seven others on March 12, 2011, has been charged with 15 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, plus reckless driving, assault and third-degree unlicensed driving.

Ophadell Williams, Jr. plead not guilty, and his bail was set at $250,000. Alsolast Thursday, New York State Inspector General Ellen Biben today released an investigative report that found the bus driver was able to exploit weaknesses in the state regulatory system and obtain a commercial bus driver license and employment with tour operators despite the fact that his driving privileges were suspended. Federal investigators have said that Mr. Williams was driving the bus at 78 miles per hour, the fastest it could go, within a minute of its flipping and sliding into a large metal stanchion that sliced through the bus. The speed limit where the bus crashed was 55 m.p.h. Mr. Williams has denied falling asleep while driving, and has said that the accident was caused when a passing tractor-trailer clipped the bus, forcing him to veer off the road. Investigators found no evidence that the bus made contact with a tractor-trailer, according to a report they filed.

According to the Inspector Generals report, by using different names and submitting false or misleading information to law enforcement, State agencies and prospective employers, Mr.Williams was able to conceal significant aspects of his driving and criminal history. Because of limitations in the State Department of Motor Vehicles procedures and the inadequate information available to them from other government agencies, licensing officials were unable to connect the bus driver to records they maintained on him under a different first name but with the same date of birth and address. At the time of the crash, Williams had three open suspensions to his driving privileges under an alias, Eric Williams.

While some state agencies were aware of his alias, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which issued his license, was not. He also had a criminal record including first-degree manslaughter and grand larceny, neither of which would prohibit somebody from obtaining a license to drive a commercial passenger bus n New York under current law. The Inspector Generals investigation, in coordination with those other authorities, was narrowly focused on how Williams was able to obtain and retain a commercial driver license enabling him to drive commercial passenger buses given his driving and criminal history.

After the crash Mr. Williamss driving privileges were revoked as details emerged about his prior criminal record, which included serving time in prison for manslaughter and larceny. Inspector General Bibens recommendations include:

Administrative proposals: For commercial license applicants, especially those seeking to drive passenger buses, DMV should be more aggressive in its review of tickets, convictions and accidents attributed to individuals whose names do not match any license on file. The DMV should work with the Division of Criminal Justice Services and law enforcement agencies to better identify applicants and drivers who use aliases. The DMV should also work closely with law enforcement agencies to reduce the number of summonses issued that cannot be linked directly to a licensed individual. The DMV commercial driver license application should include additional questions such as whether a prospective driver has ever been ticketed for driving without a license and whether the applicant was ever licensed, ticketed or had their driving privileges suspended under a different name. The DMV should consider steps to more effectively deter false statements on license applications. Commercial bus companies should have more access to information about prospective job applicants, including related employment history and more extensive driving records. Consideration should be given to the creation of a new database or use of an existing database to track individuals who submit false or misleading paperwork to government agencies.

Legislative proposals: The DMV should have the same statutory authority to require a commercial driver license applicants fingerprints as it does with school bus drivers, especially for those seeking to drive passenger buses. Consideration should be given to increasing the disqualifications and waiting periods for non-school bus drivers convicted of criminal offenses and driving infractions, and the look back periods should exclude any time that the driver is incarcerated. Increase the penalties for driving without a license and consider similar deterrents for the owners of vehicles driven by unlicensed operators. The DMV should have the statutory authority to enforce driving-related conditions of parole.

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