MICHAEL CASEY Associated Press
Systems meant to keep motorists safe failed to prevent a pickup driver on drugs from crashing last year into an oncoming group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, leading to the death of seven bikers, the National Transportation Safety Board found Tuesday.
The board unanimously approved a report that determined that Volodymyr Zhukovskyy’s impairment from the drugs was the “probable cause” for him crossing the center line on a rural, two-lane highway and sparking the fiery crash.
But it also blamed Massachusetts for allowing Zhukovskyy to continue driving, despite having infractions that included several for drunken driving. It also said a federal motor vehicle safety agency didn’t do enough to address problems at the company Zhukovskyy worked for.
“There were multiple failures on multiple levels of the system, the system that is supposed to provide a safety net to protect us when we’re out on our nation’s roadways,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters. “Unfortunately, that safety net had multiple holes in it.”
Zhukovskyy was returning from delivering vehicles for a Massachusetts transport company and was towing an empty flatbed trailer.
NTSB investigators told the board that Zhukovskyy had drugs, including opioids, in his system. They also said witnesses had reported him driving erratically.
Investigators found that neither cellphone use nor weather was a factor. They, however, couldn’t rule out fatigue but concluded its effects were unclear because of the drug use.
The crash happened June 21, 2019, in Randolph. The seven bikers were members of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club, a New England group that includes Marines and their spouses. The victims were from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Zhukovskyy, 23, of West Springfield, Massachusetts, pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide and driving under the influence. He remains in custody as he awaits trial next year. His lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Last month, documents released by the NTSB revealed Zhukovskyy told authorities he regularly used heroin and cocaine but believed he was not impaired at the time of the crash. He told Massachusetts State Police that he had used heroin and cocaine the morning of the crash.
Zhukovskyy’s lawyers have argued an independent analysis showed one motorcyclist was drunk and was the one who hit the pickup and caused the crash. They had no comment Tuesday after the NTSB issued its report.
Investigators found that some of the 15 bikers and seven passengers, including the lead motorcyclist, were impaired by alcohol but that it wasn’t the reason for the crash.
The NTSB found Massachusetts contributed to the crash for not revoking Zhukovskyy’s commercial driving license beforehand. If the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles had acted, Zhukovskyy’s license would have been suspended June 10 — 11 days before the crash — and restored July 25.
The registry did not act on information provided by the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles about Zhukovskyy’s arrest May 11 in a Walmart parking lot in East Windsor after failing a sobriety test — something that should have cost him his license.
It was later revealed that Massachusetts grappled for years without success to clear chronic backlogs in the processing of notifications sent by other states of infractions by its drivers. Registry officials acknowledge that tens of thousands of such notices have gone unprocessed for years.
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“They obviously knew they had a problem but they just weren’t addressing it,” Sumwalt said. “Clearly, the Massachusetts RMV dropped the ball.”
Similar problems were found in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and at least six other jurisdictions, the NTSB found.
Zhukovskyy was driving for Westfield Transport at the time of the crash. The company had a history of violations, and NTSB investigators said the 3-year-old carrier exhibited a “substantial disregard for federal motor carrier safety regulations” and was a “motor carrier without regard for safety.”
The company had no corporate safety program, no drug testing program and no records showing it had a system for service and repairs. A manager also admitted the company had lied to investigators about some of the driver logs that were reviewed.
A review by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration also found more than two dozen violations by the company. But the NTSB said the safety administration could have done more to address the company’s shortcomings even before the crash.
The agency did label the company a moderate risk four months beforehand because of an increasing rate of violations. But that, the NTSB said, “wasn’t enough to trigger additional scrutiny in the form of a compliance review, which might have revealed just how much of a safety hazard Westfield had become.”
FMCSA spokesperson Duane DeBruyne said the agency’s top priority is always to reduce crashes involving commercial motor vehicles.
“As always, FMCSA will review recommendations provided by NTSB and will continue to focus on promoting safety involving large trucks and buses,” he said.
The company shut down shortly after the crash. Contact information for the owner to offer comment cannot be found.