MERCED, Calif. — On a warm August morning last year, charter bus driver Mario David Vasquez was tired and talking on his cellphone as he weaved a white motor coach through central California farmland shortly before barreling into a pole, prosecutors said Tuesday. Four people died, many more suffered serious injuries and the bus was nearly sliced in half.
Vasquez’s extreme fatigue, violations of commercial regulations and repeated cellphone use on the road led Merced County District Attorney Larry D. Morse II on Monday to file four felony counts of vehicular manslaughter and five misdemeanor vehicle code violations against Vasquez in connection with the Aug. 2, 2016 crash near the farming town of Atwater.
The violations while Vasquez was driving the bus “demonstrated a gross dereliction of the duty he owed not just to his passengers, but to every motorist on Highway 99 that morning,” Morse said in a statement Tuesday announcing the charges..
The wreck happened when the bus heading on a state highway to Washington state struck a large sign post head-on. Driver fatigue was believed to be a major factor in the crash, Morse said.
The post sliced through the middle of the bus, crushing rows of seats. Besides the passengers who died, several passengers who survived had to have limbs amputated.
A California Highway Patrol investigation found Vasquez used cellphone frequently while driving the bus carrying 26 passengers through California, including a call he was on a few minutes before the crash happened.
His commercial driver’s log book that he was required fill out showed he slept 6.5 hours the previous day, but cellphone records suggested he did not sleep that much, Morse said. Vazquez also violated laws linked to the maximum driving time allowed for commercial drivers, Morse said.
Vazquez has 30 years of bus driving experience. The misdemeanor violations stemmed from the driver’s alleged falsification of his daily log book, failure to keep accurate records and laws relating to maximum driving time for commercial drivers.
Surviving passengers described Vasquez as looking tired or drowsy during travel, and multiple drivers on Highway 99 in Merced County contacted investigators after the crash to report that the bus had been seen weaving shortly before the accident, Morse said.
Amanda McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Merced County District Attorney’s office, said she did not know if Vasquez has an attorney. The county’s public defender’s office said it was not representing him. Efforts to reach Vazquez, of Los Angeles, were unsuccessful.