MAEBASHI, GUNMA PREF. – The operator of a tour bus involved in a fatal accident on an expressway employed the driver on a day-by-day basis in violation of the road transport law and committed other operational breaches, a special transport ministry audit and details provided by the carrier’s president indicate.
Although the law bans short-term employment of bus drivers for safety reasons, the operator, Rikuentai, based in Chiba Prefecture, gave one-off jobs to Kazan Kono, 43, its president, Yumihide Hariu, 55, told the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, ministry officials said.
Kono was arrested Tuesday and his case was turned over to prosecutors Thursday.
The bus was on its way to Tokyo Disneyland in Chiba Prefecture from Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, April 29 when it crashed into the end of a roadside wall on the Kanetsu Expressway in Gunma Prefecture. Seven passengers lost their lives and another 38 were injured when the wall effectively cut the bus in half.
Kono, who was also seriously hurt, was quoted as telling investigators he had dozed off due to fatigue at the time of the crash.
Investigators are examining Kono’s health and what he was doing before the crash to determine whether it was caused by overwork, they said. He is suspected of negligent driving resulting in death and injury.
Before the horrific crash, Kono had completed a similar bus trip from Tokyo Disneyland to JR Kanazawa Station starting Friday night and ending Saturday morning, Osaka-based tour agency Harvest Holdings said. The ill-fated trip to Tokyo Disneyland began Saturday night.
It has also been found that Kono asked Hariu to assign an assistant driver to accompany him on the earlier trip to Kanazawa as he was concerned he did not fully know the route, according to the officials.
A male employee at Rikuentai accompanied Kono for part of that trip, but he drove alone on the run back to Disneyland.
Transport ministry officials meanwhile said they have found the carrier was violating separate government regulations, including failing to provide instructions on routes and scheduled stops to its drivers.
On Wednesday, police learned Kono didn’t take a shorter route via the Joshinetsu Expressway designated by the travel agency that organized the tour.
Although the April 29 bus crash shocked the nation as Golden Week holidays kicked in, a 2009 survey by the internal affairs ministry illustrated that the tour bus 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.