Sleepy driving can kill

Around 4:40 a.m. on April 29, 2012, a long-distance tour bus on its way to the Tokyo Disney Resort crashed against a sound insulating wall of the Kan-Etsu Expressway in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, killing seven passengers from Toyama and Ishikawa prefectures and injuring 38 others. The Maebashi District Court on March 25 ruled that the driver, Kazan Kono, continued to drive although he felt sleepy and sentenced him to 9.5 years’ imprisonment and fined him ¥2 million.

After the accident, Kono was found to be suffering from sleep apnea syndrome (SAS), a disorder characterized by the stoppage of breathing or shallow breathing during sleep. Bus operators must regularly carry out strict medical checkups of drivers and make sure they’re not overworked. Drivers need to have the courage and common sense to stop driving and take a nap if they feel sleepy. The bottom line must be the safety of bus operations.

The focus of Kono’s trial was whether he experienced sleepiness while driving. The prosecution said that since he felt sleepy in the 20 minutes before the accident, he should have been able to anticipate the danger of falling asleep. Thus it said that his continuing driving constituted negligence and called for 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of ¥2 million, almost the maximum punishment for dangerous driving causing death or injury.

The prosecution pointed out that Kono only slept three hours in the 36 hour period before driving the bus. During the 20 minutes period before the crash, he suddenly accelerated or slowed down 49 times between the speeds of 70 to 110 kph and that he admitted during the interrogation following his arrest that he had felt sleepy. Kono’s defense counsel countered by saying that because of SAS, he suddenly fell asleep without any prior sleepiness — a defense that has been used successfully in a similar case in Chiba.

In the Kono ruling, presiding judge Mitsuaki Takayama said that the frequent change in the bus’ speed and a passenger’s testimony that Kono was resting his head on the steering wheel when the bus was in a service area showed that he had felt sleepy before the crash. The judge criticized him for failing to get adequate sleep prior to his shift and called his behavior unpardonable as a professional driver who held people’s lives in his hands.

On March 3, a bus crashed into a truck in a parking area of the Hokuriku Expressway, killing the driver and one passenger and injuring 26 others. The driver had SAS and had been told to undergo follow-up examinations. The transport ministry should make it obligatory for professional drivers to be tested for SAS. And all drivers should make sure they are well rested before they take the wheel and not hesitate to take a break if they feel sleepy.