Exit ramp where bus crashed along I-95 already was under the scrutiny of highway safety officials

By REED WILLIAMS AND MARK BOWES Richmond Times-Dispatch   20 hrs ago

Less than two months before Tuesday’s fatal bus crash along Interstate 95, a Prince George County woman called Virginia transportation officials to warn them about the site.

She said many drivers on northbound Interstate 95 are confused by the highway signs and think that the off-ramp at Exit 45 is actually a ramp onto Interstate 295. This misconception, she said, was causing drivers to come onto the exit ramp too fast, resulting in crashes.

In response to her phone call on Feb. 6, the Virginia Department of Transportation began reviewing whether safety improvements were needed at the exit ramp in Prince George, a couple of miles south of Petersburg. So the ramp already was under the scrutiny of highway safety officials when a discount-fare bus veered off the ramp and overturned with 57 people aboard Tuesday morning.

“We’re looking at all the signage through there to see if it’s giving good directions to the motorists,” said Bob Spieldenner, a VDOT spokesman.

The crash sent dozens of passengers to the hospital and claimed the lives of a 37-year-old man and an 81-year-old retired nurse who had been on her way home to New York City with a cousin after attending another relative’s wedding in Orlando, Fla.

On Wednesday, the police identified the man who died as Su Feng Xu, a Chinese national with an unknown address, and the woman as Janetta Cumberbatch, a resident of Jamaica, Queens, who is being remembered by relatives for her kindness and dedication to her many patients during a long career at Jamaica Hospital.

“She’s just a warm person,” her brother, James Francois, said in a phone interview. “She’s helped a lot of people. She got personally involved in a lot of people’s lives.”

Lavona Gabriel, the cousin who was traveling with Cumberbatch back to New York from Gabriel’s granddaughter’s wedding, was seriously injured in the crash, Francois said. She is still in serious condition at a Richmond-area hospital and was to undergo surgery. Her son is traveling from Florida to be with her.

The bus driver, Yui Man Chow, 40, of Staten Island, N.Y., was charged Tuesday with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. He was released from jail on bond Wednesday but is not allowed to leave Virginia.

The bus had departed from Orlando and was en route to New York City when the driver tried to take the exit from northbound I-95 and ran off the left side of the ramp. Virginia State Police said speed was a factor in the crash.

Tuesday’s deadly accident was at least the ninth crash at the exit ramp since the start of 2014, according to VDOT. None of the earlier eight crashes was fatal, but speed was considered the primary factor in seven of the eight.

Virginia State Police Sgt. Keeli Hill said Tuesday that the exit ramp “has been a problem area.” She also said that the authorities believe Chow may have intended to take the exit for I-295, which is Exit 46 — about 1 mile north of Exit 45.

Spieldenner, the VDOT spokesman, said there are four highway signs that mention I-295 over a stretch of less than 3 miles leading up to Exit 45, the one the bus took. The signs are there to inform drivers that they will soon need to decide whether to continue on I-95 or branch off onto I-295, he said.

“It’s showing that this is coming up and you have options,” he said.

Safety reviews like the one VDOT began after receiving the concerned phone call on Feb. 6 usually take two or three months to complete, Spieldenner said. He said a lot of factors must be considered before changes are made to signs at an exit ramp, and engineers need to make sure they are not worsening a situation.

“We’re continuing the evaluation that was underway,” he said. “Since this happened, we’ll be taking whatever comes out of the police investigation and wrapping it into this review and seeing if there’s anything we can improve.”

VDOT’s Richmond District, which spans 22 localities and includes the site of the bus crash, is one of the busiest districts in the state, Spieldenner said. The district receives thousands of reports from residents each year, he said, “everything from a pothole to a concern about signage to a problem with a ditch along a roadway.”

As the state police investigation continues, Chow awaits a court date scheduled for Monday morning on the manslaughter counts. He was released from Riverside Regional Jail at 11:24 p.m. Wednesday on a $14,000 secured bond granted by a Prince George magistrate, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Susan Fierro, who said her office wasn’t consulted.

Because he was released, Chow wasn’t required to appear before a judge Wednesday morning in Prince George General District Court. When he is arraigned Monday, Chow will inform the court whether he will hire an attorney or ask that someone be appointed to represent him, Fierro said.

Also on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which enforces federal regulations governing interstate commercial travel, said the agency has not issued an order for the bus company, Tao’s Travel Inc., to halt its operations pending the investigation of Tuesday’s fatal crash.

In 2011, the agency ordered Sky Express to shut down its operations after one of its buses crashed off I-95 in Caroline County, killing four people. But in that case, Sky Express already was under probation for a number of operational and driver safety violations that were discovered during a compliance review. By comparison, Tao’s Travel, based in Middleton, Mass., had a satisfactory safety rating, with no crashes in the past two years.

The company owns four passenger coaches and employs eight drivers. A satisfactory rating means the company is authorized to operate on roadways and has not been flagged for an abnormal number of safety violations.

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