Questions remain about driver and regulations after 14 injured in bus crash
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KMIZ)
ABC 17 Investigates the Mid-Missouri bus crash that injured 14 people on their way home from a church trip in Houston, Texas.
Months later, questions still remain about the driver and the crash. With safety regulations in place to prevent overtired drivers, ABC 17 wants to know why the driver couldn't stay awake and what led to him nodding off.
On July 14, ABC 17 News was at the scene of a bus crash in Cole County. The crash happened at 2:30 a.m. off of Highway 54. Kids and adults from Immanuel Lutheran Church and School were on the bus operated by White Knight Limousine.
The driver, Thomas Babbitt, fell asleep.
A statement from the detailed Missouri State Highway Patrol crash report included a statement from Babbitt after the crash.
"I fell asleep and lost control. I was knocked out of my seat and fell down on the floor," Babbit said in the statement.
"A couple feet either way, we would have a much worse outcome," Cole County EMS Chief Eric Hoy said.
Fourteen passengers were sent to the hospital for their injuries.
Babbitt was charged with careless driving and not wearing a seat belt. ABC 17 News went to his arraignment in Cole County in October, where his lawyer entered a "not guilty" plea.
ABC 17 News called Babbitt, who also goes by Tony, on the phone.
The man that answered confirmed to ABC 17 that he was Tony Babbitt.
Babbitt quickly said, "No comment."
ABC 17 also reached out to Babbitt's attorney TJ Kirsch. He declined an interview.
On the morning of the crash, troopers recorded witness statements from passengers to include in the official crash report.
"I was noticing he was tired," one passenger said. "I thought he was tossed from the bus. He was down in the rubble on the stairs. He immediately called his coworkers. He left a voicemail telling someone he fell asleep."
The bus operated by White Knight Limousine started the drive in Houston, Texas. The crash happened in Cole County.
Google Maps show the drive from Houston to the Jefferson City drop-off location lasts almost 13 hours.
"Motor coach operators can drive 10 hours in a 24-hour period," said Capt. Kevin Kelley, of the MSHP's Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division.
This means Babbitt could have started that trip and worked over the 10-hour limit, or he switched out with another driver.
"They have to have at least 8 'off' hours in a 24-hour period," Kelley said. "It's hard to mandate somebody's sleep in their 'off-duty' time. We can't regulate what they do. So obviously sleep would be good, but it's really hard to regulate that."
ABC 17 was able to confirm through searching ambulance licensing databases that Thomas Babbitt is currently licensed to drive an ambulance in the Missouri.
ABC 17 was also able to confirm Babbitt was on the employee roster for the Cooper County Ambulance District in July.
According to rules from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, drivers are supposed to be logging their driving hours for both jobs to count toward the operating limits of 60 hours per week, or 70 hours in eight-day period.
"I'll use the paramedic as the example, paramedics are typically firefighters, they do a 24 hour shift. Not all of that time is spent working. Some of that time is resting. So the time that they are resting, they can show it as 'off duty,'" said Kelley.
ABC 17 News sent a records request to the Cooper County Ambulance District asking for the hours each ambulance driver drove in July and August.
The department denied ABC 17's request based on its belief a time card for a tax-payer funded position is not public information.
ABC 17 then replied with a new request directly asking if Babbitt drove an ambulance in the days and nights leading up to the crash, the day of the crash and the days after.
Cooper County Ambulance again denied to supply ABC 17 with an answer. It said it believes this information would be part of a personnel file.
ABC 17 News also reached out to White Knight Limousine multiple times. White Knight has not returned any of ABC 17's calls.
In September, ABC 17 sent a FOIA request to the US Department of Transportation asking for inspection reports, records of citation and hour log data related to the incident.
ABC 17 received this response, "The FMCSA FOIA Office is currently experiencing exceptional circumstances in that due to the volume of FOIA requests received, we are working to reduce a 9-to-11-month backlog of requests in addition to processing current requests (see 49 C.F.R. § 7.34(c)). Under the FMCSA's first-infirst-out method of processing FOIA requests, then, processing your FOIA request may take up to 11 months, however, could be sooner."
Babbitt's next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 20. ABC 17 News news plans to be there and follow this story.