More $ For Bus Drivers Will Mean Fewer Deadly Crashes: Report

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(New York, NY WNYC) The Amalgamated Transit Union says it has an antidote to the recent plague of deadly long distance bus crashes: pay drivers overtime. The report contends that would limit drivers' hours behind the wheel, reducing the time buses are operated in a state of fatigue, which is the leading cause of accidents.

The report looks at statistics produced by National Traffic Safety Board investigations of 16 fatal bus crashes between June 1998 and January 2008:

Driver related problems were responsible for 60 percent of the fatalities occurring in the crashes investigated, while the condition of the vehicle accounted for only 20 percent of the fatalities. Driver fatigue was responsible for a staggering 36% of the fatalities occurring in the crashes investigated. It was the number one cause of fatal accidents, far above road conditions (2%) and inattention (6%). Other than vehicle condition, the next highest root cause was driver medical condition (18%).

The Virginia State Police believe driver fatigue caused a long distance bus to overturn on I-95 in Virginia on May 31. That accident killed four passengers and injured more than 50 others. It was the sixth major bus crash since the beginning of the year.

Those accidents, and the 25 fatalities they've produced, have prompted federal regulators to call for greater inspection powers of operators in the fast-growing industry. It has also brought renewed attention to the Motorcoach Safety Enhancement Act of 2011, which would require long distance buses to be fitted with seat belts, crush-proof roofs, reinforced windows and anti-roll technology.

All well and good, says the ATU report, but none of those measures directly address the issue of driver fatigue:

Hours of service regulations that have been in existence for decades are routinely ignored, especially by fly-by-night, non-union bus companies. The state police in general do not perform random checks of passenger buses the way they do on cargo-hauling trucks because of the dissatisfaction expressed by passengers when their bus gets pulled out of commission and no replacement vehicle arrives for hours. Moreover, even if police actively
seek out so-called discount bus carriers, there are not nearly enough law enforcement officers to even begin the process of ridding the highways of unsafe buses.

America Bus Association spokesman Dan Ronan disagreed with union's conclusion that bus company owners should give up their federal exemption from having to pay drivers overtime.

"This exemption has been around since the 1930s and we’ve had this series of accidents in the last month or so but we’ve gone 80 years without a rash of accidents," he said. "So if overtime pay were an issue, you would’ve thought we’d have had this level of accidents all the time, not just in the last couple of weeks here."

He said operators who pay substandard wages are not going to obey a law requiring overtime pay.

"The real question is how we get those guys off the road and reward the bus companies that are doing a good job, that are out there paying the drivers a decent wage, making sure their logbooks are up to date, that they’re driving safe equipment, all the things that make up a good bus company," he said.