Fatigue problem for bus drivers: poll

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Years before Sunday’s fatal highway bus crash in Gunma Prefecture killed seven, a survey conducted by the internal affairs ministry illustrated that the sector was not immune to severe accidents, especially if drivers are fatigued.

Of the 136 long-distance bus drivers who took part in the survey, conducted between April and May 2009, 122 said they had either fallen asleep or felt drowsy behind the wheel and 130 had faced risky situations while driving due to fatigue.

Of those who nearly experienced an accident, 61 percent blamed it on inadequate rest due to tight scheduling, the survey revealed.

Although the land ministry has set a maximum daily driving distance of 670 km for a single driver, those in the survey said an average of 439 km would be more appropriate for driving safely at night and 531 km during the day.

The bus that crashed Sunday was scheduled to travel approximately 540 km without any backup driver. The land ministry is considering revising the 670-km limit following the fatal crash, reports said Tuesday.

According to the internal affairs ministry, a revision of the law in 2000 made it easier to launch chartered bus businesses. The number of such companies nearly doubled between 1999 and 2008 and surpassed 4,000, while the number of accidents spiked.

The industry’s quick expansion also intensified price competition.

According to a 2007 survey conducted by the land ministry, 204 of the 316 tour bus companies were found to be in violation of regulations regarding driver shifts and other rules against overworking.

A decline in foreign visitors to Japan following the March 2011 disasters may also have played a role in Sunday’s accident, involving a bus from the Chiba-based company Rikuentai.

According to reports, Rikuentai expanded its business to overnight highway bus transportation after it lost the bulk of its customers, mostly from China, that were flying in and out of Narita airport.

“All of us in the industry are aware that there has been a sharp decline in foreign tourists in Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake,” an official of a Tokyo-based bus company, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Japan Times.

“Things are beginning to recover this year but only very slowly,” he added, hinting that cost-cutting and overworking of drivers will likely continue.