Synthetic Drugs `Likely' Cause of Oklahoma Crash, Board Says

  • Safety Board rejects claim driver was reaching for a soda
  • Calls for new steps to protect public from `growing problem'

Synthetic drug use by U.S. truckers is a growing and deadly problem, U.S. safety investigators said Tuesday, in concluding that a Texas trucker was “likely” impaired by a marijuana-like substance when his semi hit a bus and killed four members of a college women’s softball team last year in Oklahoma.

At a hearing Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board rejected the driver’s claim that he was reaching for a soda at the time of the crash. Rather, it cited his “incapacitation likely stemming from his use of synthetic cannabinoids.” It also found the failure of the team to wear seat belts contributed to the players’ injuries, as did “the lack of appropriate crashworthiness standards” for medium-size buses.

The four-member board urged research on truck drivers impaired by synthetic drugs, better regulations on testing for such substances, and more education of truckers about the risks. It also recommended expanding mandatory seat belt laws around the U.S.

Board members said they don’t know the extent of synthetic-drug use, which may involve thousands of compounds that elude detection in most testing for substances like marijuana, cocaine and alcohol. 

“All indications are that it’s a growing problem, and we’re seeing it more publicly available,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in an interview after a hearing in Washington. “This is a fresh and scary and growing problem. We need to get some controls around these synthetic drugs. It’s shocking to me that if I’m a truck driver, I can buy this in a truck stop.”

Cannabinoids Targeted

In September, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced the arrest of 10 people in a ring that distributed smokable synthetic cannabinoids, saying they are causing “a public health crisis that is reaching epidemic proportions,” while “sending thousands upon thousands to emergency rooms in New York City and around the country.”

Four students from North Central Texas College died on on Sept. 26, 2014, near Davis, Oklahoma, when their bus was hit by a truck driven by Russell Staley, who had a history of using synthetic drugs. He drove 1,100 feet across a grassy median, never slowing down or steering before striking the bus. He then drove another 300 feet into nearby woods.

Investigators said he was unaware that he had even hit the bus as his truck continued on into the trees.

Pipe found in wreckage

Source: National Transportation Safety Board

After the crash, investigators found a silver pipe with burnt residue of 5-fluoro-AMB, a synthetic cannabinoid, but later testing could not confirm or rule out its presence in Staley’s blood, according to the NTSB. Investigators ruled out other factors, including fatigue, saying Staley’s failure to respond to driving off the roadway for 11 seconds was likely caused by synthetic drugs.

Staley was charged with four counts of manslaughter and faces a preliminary hearing in February. His attorney, Fob Jones, didn’t immediately return a call and e-mail seeking comment.

Seizure-like Symptoms

Staley needed help for his dependency on synthetic cannabinoids, also known as K2, and had seizure-like symptoms, his wife told his doctor 13 months before the crash, according to records released by the NTSB. Notes from Staley’s licensed professional counselor in August 2013 also showed he said he “had been using designer drugs at work” and needed help with stress, anger, low self-esteem, guilt and depression.

While the Texas junior college had a policy requiring all drivers to require their passengers to wear seat belts, the coach behind the wheel did not do so, and the school had no policy to ensure compliance, the NTSB added.

After the crash, investigators sent samples of Staley’s blood to three labs, including two that could test for the presence of synthetic cannabinoids, but the results were inconclusive. They also could only find a one in 38 chance that the DNA on the pipe found in Staley’s truck was his.

Staley had worked for Quickway Transportation Inc. for only a few months when the accident occurred. He was 47 miles north of the Oklahoma-Texas line at 9:05 p.m. that night when the road curved slightly to the right, and his rig did not.

Four Killed

Jaiden Pelton, 19, of Telephone, Texas; Brooke Deckard, 20, of Blue Ridge, Texas; Meagan Richardson, 19, of Wylie, Texas; and Katelynn Woodlee, 18, of Dodd City, Texas, were killed in the crash. The team was returning home from a scrimmage at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma.

The NTSB released 2,000 pages of documents late Monday, including a transcript of a whistle-blower’s call to the board from a supervisor who worked for Staley’s previous employer. Staley had been missing work, showing up late and not performing well, the supervisor told a board investigator.

Staley told the supervisor he was smoking synthetic marijuana, which he referred to as spice. Staley told him that he had passed out in a park and didn’t know how long he had been there. When the supervisor told his boss about Staley’s problem, “it fell on deaf ears,” and the company neither took him off the road nor got him assistance, according to the report.

“I told him, I said this guy’s going to kill somebody someday, you watch,” the supervisor said he told his boss. “And I’ll be damned, it happened.”

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