Fatal bus crash raises alarm bells

The fatal crash of a chartered bus that killed 15 people and injured 26 others on an overnight tour to a ski resort in Nagano Prefecture last week has exposed structural problems in the industry, including an acute shortage of drivers amid surging demand for discount tours and alleged practices that defy safety rules that were introduced based on the lessons of past accidents. Aside from identifying direct responsibility for the crash, authorities need to investigate the industry’s practices to see if passenger safety is being compromised in the tight competition driven by deregulation.

Nearly a week after the accident, which took place in Karuizawa in the wee hours of Jan. 15, it has yet to be determined how the bus with two drivers — both killed in the crash — and carrying 39 passengers plunged off a winding mountain road. It has been reported that the 65-year-old driver behind the wheel at the time of the crash had little previous experience piloting large buses; that the operator of the bus company failed to perform mandatory inspections of the drivers before they departed from Tokyo or give them detailed instructions about the tour route; and that the operator was given administrative penalties two days earlier for failing to have its drivers take regular health exams.

It’s unclear whether any of these factors contributed to the nation’s worst bus accident in decades. The police probe so far suggests that the driver may have been speeding well beyond the limit and lost control of the vehicle on the twisty downhill road. What should also be investigated is whether the crash is an isolated incident, whether the tour bus industry has properly learned the lessons from past accidents and whether the safety steps taken by authorities are sufficient to deal with the changing conditions of the business.

Government licenses were once required in the chartered bus business and were granted based on passenger demands in each region. A deregulatory step taken in 2000 to give business permits to companies that met certain criteria eased the way for new entrants to the industry. The number of private-sector bus operators roughly doubled from 2,294 in 1999 to 4,486 as of 2013. The Tokyo-based company ESP, which ran the bus in question, obtained a permit to operate chartered buses in 2014 after it started as a security firm in 2008.

The surge in the number of operators led to steep price competition. Discount bus tours offered by some firms that, for example, linked Tokyo and Osaka at less than ¥3,000 became extremely popular, with up to 7 million tourists using such tours annually. However, safety concerns were raised over uncontrolled price-cutting competition, which led some operators to cut manpower costs by getting drivers to work longer hours or by hiring inexperienced drivers.

The April 2012 accident of a chartered bus on the Kanetsu Expressway in Gunma Prefecture that killed seven passengers, which was caused by an overworked driver dozing off and smashing into a wall, prompted the transport ministry to tighten regulations. The distance that a driver on an overnight tour could go was shortened from 670 km to 400 km a day. Travel agents organizing bus tours were required to regularly monitor whether the bus operators they hire properly check the health of their drivers and service their fleets as required.

The ministry also set minimum limits on the fees that bus operators can charge to win contracts from tour organizers — to prevent unreasonable competition and make sure that the operators have enough resources to spend on manpower and vehicle maintenance. The ministry found that nearly a dozen tour bus operators violated the limits within a year after the rule was introduced. ESP was found to have sharply undercut the limits to win bus tour contracts in several cases, including the fatal one. Media reports suggest that the illegal discounts remain widespread in the industry, because the bus operators are in a weak position vis-a-vis the travel agents and often cannot reject demands for lower prices.

While the rules introduced after the 2012 fatal crash were meant to ensure safe bus tours by easing the workload on drivers, the industry faces a chronic shortage of manpower and the pool of drivers is rapidly aging. A transport ministry survey of bus operators in 2010 showed that 12.6 percent of drivers were in their 60s, up 2.5 points from five years earlier, while those in their 20s accounted for a mere 3 percent. The manpower shortage has been exacerbated by an increasing demand for truck drivers in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and the growing popularity of bus tours fueled by the surge in inbound tourism.

About 500 accidents involving chartered tour buses reportedly take place across the country each year. In recent years, bus operators have been slapped with 300 to 600 administrative penalties by transport authorities annually for rule violations. But there are only about 360 transport ministry inspectors nationwide, and it is reported they carry out on-site checks on just one-fifth of all bus operators each year.

The Karuizawa bus crash, whose fatal victims were university students on holiday, should provide an occasion for the industry and authorities to reconsider whether current safety regulations are adequate and being properly followed.

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