VOX POPULI: Competition leads to drowsy bus drivers, tempts fatal consequences

May 01, 2012

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

Passengers who choose buses over other means of transportation have their own reasons. “My husband forgets my birthday/ On such a day/ I look at pamphlets of bus tours by myself” is a tanka poem by Yoko Tanaka. Some people travel alone to dispel their gloom, while others take family trips. On all-night bus rides, passengers fall asleep and dream to find themselves at their destinations in the morning. Overnight passenger buses carry as many tomorrows as the number of passengers riding them.

The fatal accident on the Kan-Etsu Expressway in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, on April 29 not only deprived passengers of their plans for the Golden Week holidays, but even cost the lives and futures of some. The coach that traveled through the night crashed into a soundproof wall at nearly 100 kph just before dawn. The steel wall ripped through the vehicle like a knife and destroyed the seats on the left side.

A one-way ticket from Kanazawa to Tokyo Disney Resort in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, via Toyama and Tokyo costs 3,500 yen ($44). Thanks to deregulation, the market for tours by express coach keeps growing. The travel agency that organized the tour had hired a bus company in Chiba Prefecture to cover increased services during the holidays.

Travel agents that compete with low prices to attract customers choose bus operators that offer low rates. As a result, some operators rely on drivers who don’t mind driving long distances alone without backup drivers. Thus, a danger called "overwork" sometimes shares the ride with passengers who choose discount fares.

Be it travel by land, sea or air, travel agents compete on prices and services. Although safety is holy ground that should never be compromised, the competition is so intense that this cardinal rule is sometimes broken. According to a survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 90 percent of chartered bus drivers have struggled to stay awake behind the wheel.

It is easy to pin the blame on the Kan-Etsu Expressway crash on the driver, who fell asleep. But when competition results in drivers fighting off the urge to sleep, that is dangerous. Only when bus services deliver their passengers safely and peacefully to their destinations can they boast that their low fares are a bargain. Night-bus operators must vie with one another to put passengers, not drivers, to sleep.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 1

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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