A chartered tour bus driver who caused an accident on the Kanetsu Expressway that killed seven and injured 39 passengers on April 29 reportedly told police he nodded off at the wheel from exhaustion.
While investigators try to determine the exact cause of the tragedy, some measures should be carried out immediately.
First, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism must review and reinforce its safety standard for the operation of highway express buses.
Under the current standard, the maximum daily driving distance and hours for chartered bus drivers are 670 kilometers and nine hours. This distance is roughly equivalent to that between Tokyo and Okayama in western Japan, and drivers can be asked to remain at the wheel for up to four hours without a break. This is pretty grueling, even for professionals.
In a survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, nine out of 10 drivers said they have experienced drowsiness or actually dozed off while driving. They blamed long-distance driving, night-time driving and general fatigue from overwork.
The survey also found that chartered bus drivers put in 30 percent more hours than average workers. All in all, the survey findings clearly showed the current safety standard is too lax.
The standard must be revised on these three points at least: A stand-by driver must be aboard every long-distance overnighter bus; drivers must be required to take more frequent breaks; and the safety standard applied at night should be more stringent than its daytime counterpart.
The transport ministry was actually asked by the internal affairs ministry two years ago to revise the standard. But it dragged its feet, claiming its priority then was to “deal with bus operators who don’t abide by the safety standard.”
The time for procrastination is over.
Deregulation of bus and taxi services took place about 10 years ago. The purpose was to improve services through competition and bring prices down by encouraging the entry of new players.
The results have benefited consumers, but there were fears from the start that the excess competition might force drivers to overwork and sacrifice safety.
Long-distance chartered buses typified the deregulatory transition. Offering convenience and cheap fares, bus operators flourished, but they soon became noticeably prone to accidents and traffic law violations.
Travel agencies arrange bus tours and subcontract the tours to bus operators, often making excessive demands of the latter. In turn, the bus operators push their drivers just as mercilessly. Given this vicious cycle, we can well understand why the transport ministry has tried to make travel agencies shoulder heavier responsibilities.
The proper way to go about deregulation is to lower the hurdle for newcomers to make it easier for them to enter the market, but subject them regularly to stringent safety checks. In other words, the more open the market becomes, the more severe the safety requirements must be.
The transportation industry is noted for a high incidence of “karoshi,” or death from overwork. Pushing drivers beyond their physical well-being will ultimately cause deaths and injuries to passengers. Thorough inspections are needed in the taxi and truck industries, too.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 4
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