The transport ministry failed to take action on a recommendation by the internal affairs ministry in 2010 to reduce the maximum daily driving distance for chartered bus drivers.
The recommendation was made after the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications conducted a survey in 2009 of 500 chartered bus drivers, with 136 responding. It found that 122, or 89.7 percent, had become sleepy or actually fell asleep while driving. In addition, 130 drivers, or 95.6 percent, said they had experienced close calls with accidents because of drowsiness.
The revelation came two days after the driver of a chartered bus fell asleep at the wheel on the Kanetsu Expressway in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, leading to an accident that killed seven passengers and injured 39.
After its survey, the internal affairs ministry asked the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to reduce the maximum daily driving distance for chartered bus drivers from 670 kilometers. Its survey found that the average daytime distance the drivers considered safe was 531 km, while the average safe distance at night was 439 km.
In its recommendation submitted to the transport ministry in September 2010, the internal affairs ministry said the 670-km standard did not take into consideration the health of the drivers nor the opinions of drivers and experts.
The transport ministry held informal discussions with officials of bus companies until September 2010 and concluded that no changes were needed in the distance standard.
"Rather than change the maximum distance, we emphasized checks after trips to ensure that standard was being followed. We will consider reviewing that standard in the future," an official with the Safety Policy Division at the transport ministry told The Asahi Shimbun.
The April 29 accident on the Kanetsu Expressway involved a chartered bus taking a group from Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, to Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, where Tokyo Disneyland is located. The lone driver was supposed to have handled the entire distance of about 545 kilometers.
When the driver was being taken to hospital, he explained that he had nodded off.
In a survey of companies that operate chartered buses, some companies said they had replacement drivers on board even when the expected distance was less than 670 km.
The 670-km standard was implemented following a February 2007 bus accident in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, that killed one and injured 26.
(This article was written by Yoshihito Kawami and Kazuhisa Kurokawa.)
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