NTSB findings dispute state investigation reports

| 2/8/2002

Controversy continues to surround a 1999 collision in Bourbonnais, IL, when Amtrak's City of New Orleans train struck and destroyed the loaded trailer pulled by a tractor driven by trucker John Stokes and killing 11 people. While state and local police investigators have concluded the crossing gates malfunctioned, safety officials in Washington are blaming the trucker.

On Feb. 1, a crash reconstructionists' report was released, announcing the police investigation had concluded the crossing gates were not working correctly and had descended on Stokes after he began to cross the tracks. The report said Stokes was ``physically impaired by extreme sleep deprivation or fatigue,'' but did not try to go around the lowered gates.

Although the state of Illinois and local police investigations believe the crash was not Stokes' fault, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced its own findings on Tuesday in Washington, DC. Failing to concur with state and local police, the board said it had determined the probable cause of the collision was Stokes' "inappropriate response to the crossing warning devices and his judgment, likely impaired by fatigue, that he could cross the tracks before the arrival of the train."

Additionally, the NTSB cited Stokes' employer, Melco Transfer Inc., as a contributor to the accident because of the company's "failure to provide driver oversight sufficient to detect or prevent driver fatigue as a result of excessive driving or on-duty periods."

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, voiced his concern about the NTSB's failure to assign some responsibility for the accident to the train's operator.

"How convenient and easy it is for NTSB to look at conflicting information and say fatigue on the part of the driver without noting that the train was running through an industrial area at 79 miles an hour," Spencer said. "Seventy-nine miles per hour! As long as trains are going 79 miles an hour there will be horrendous accidents."

On March 15, 1999, about 9:47 p.m., Amtrak's City of New Orleans, with 207 passengers and 21 railroad employees on board and operating on the Illinois Central Railroad main line tracks, struck and destroyed the loaded trailer as Stokes' tractor attempted to cross the tracks at the McKnight Road crossing in Bourbonnais. The accident resulted in 11 deaths and 122 injuries. Both locomotives and 11 of the 14 cars derailed.

Stokes maintains he did not drive around the crossing guards, but instead the warning lights started flashing only after he had already started across the tracks.

Stokes is awaiting trial on charges of driving longer than permitted without sleep in a 24-hour period and not keeping his driver's log updated. The Illinois Attorney General's office indicted him in October on one count of willful violation of maximum driving time and one count of willful violation of driver's record of duty status. Because Illinois classifies logbook and hours-of-service violations as Class 4 felonies, Stokes faces a possible sentence of one to three years in prison for each count.