Friday’s ski bus crash in Nagano Prefecture that killed 15 people has raised a slew of fresh challenges for government and industry officials already working to revamp safety measures for long-distance bus services.
While demand for such services is rising with the surge in tourists coming to Japan, a shortage of drivers, whose ranks are also aging, will increase the risks of accidents, industry official say.
In Friday’s crash, the bus, which was carrying passengers from Tokyo to the ski resort town of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, rolled over after smashing through a guardrail. The two drivers and 12 university students died at the scene, and another passenger died several days later.
Transport ministry sources said the bus steered an erratic course for several hundred meters before it crashed, indicating the driver may have lost control of the vehicle.
The ministry on Wednesday released a five-second video image captured by a roadside surveillance camera installed 250 meters from the crash site, which showed that the bus was driving at high speed, crossing over the center line.
An official of the transport ministry said the situation was “very serious.”
An official of the Tokyo-based bus operator ESP said, “Drivers took turns once every two hours. It wasn’t a harsh work environment.”
The driver of the bus at the time of the accident was a 65-year-old man, while his co-driver was 57.
It is unclear if the two drivers had health problems. But the situation, in which the operator let older drivers take charge of long-distance services at night, “reflects the current condition of the industry,” a senior official of one bus company said.
He noted that an aging workforce was a serious problem for some companies.
“(The) body weakens and reflexes become dull as drivers age. We would like to avoid giving them tough tasks,” he said, adding that the industry lacked capable people willing to work.
According to a 2010 transport ministry survey of 119 bus companies, 12.6 percent of all drivers were aged over 60, a 2.5 percentage point increase on five years earlier. Conversely, only 3 percent of drivers were in their 20s.
Industry sources say there is increasing demand for drivers of large vehicles, such as trucks carrying fresh food and dump trucks engaged in reconstruction work in the Tohoku region.
Sightseeing bus drivers, in particular, are in high demand amid the rapidly increasing number of visitors to Japan, a travel agency official said. Buses are considered the best means of transport for Chinese tourists who want to go on shopping sprees or those who wish to travel to Mount Fuji.
But young drivers are in short supply, a transport company official noted. Most young drivers choose short-haul delivery services over long-distance buses or trucks that can require spending days away from home.
The bus driver shortage can also be blamed on low pay. A transport ministry study in 2014 revealed that the annual income of bus drivers was 6.2 percent below the average salary of the overall transport industry.
According to the National Police Agency, the annual number of accidents involving chartered buses has averaged about 500 in recent years. The number of such accidents was 558 in 2012, the year when seven people were killed in an accident involving a tour bus on the Kanetsu Expressway in Gunma Prefecture.
After the 2012 accident, the transport ministry issued a new regulation to limit the distance a driver can travel at night to 400 km. It required companies to rotate drivers for trips that exceeded this limit.
But the latest crash occurred just as the industry was trying to recruit more drivers, including more women drivers, who accounted for only 1.4 percent of the workforce in 2014.
Following a 2007 deadly ski bus crash in Osaka, a new rating system was launched in 2011 to gauge efforts to enhance safety.
However, ESP was not accredited under the system and was not a member of the Nihon Bus Association.
An industry official pointed out that unauthorized corporations were more likely to be responsible for discounted tours.
“The government should rigorously investigate companies that sacrifice safety for cost,” the official said.