Bio-Sensitive Driver Assignment – Part II

In Part 1 of this short two-part essay, I emphasized a few important and, hopefully, welcome points:

  • Most drivers actually prefer to drive when they are refreshed and alert
  • Most drivers know when these hours are
  • So when asked, most drivers will tell you when these hours are
  • With the tools outlined below, bio-sensitive driver assignment is not terribly difficult to implement
  • Preferred by most drivers, it would almost certainly be endorsed by their Unions
  • It only takes two questions to identify the optimum shift to which any driver should be assigned
  • Most public transportation modes, and most motorcoach services, include a wide variety of shifts to choose from

Fatigue Management

Fatigue management is certainly better than nothing. But largely in the sense that eating is better than nibbling. As NBT readers following my columns know, or should know, I have been violently opposed to our industry’s failure to control “shift inversion” through regulatory mechanisms – like the Hours-of-Service regulations that apply to truck drivers, and motorcoach drivers in Canada and most other developed countries. For a company knowledgeable about, and committed to, fatigue management, it is an invaluable tool, since the typical core of a fatigue management program revolves around limiting shift inversion — usually to no more than the three hours otherwise regulated. But this is still a three-hour inversion. It hardly compares to no inversion.

Further, fatigue management is exponentially more difficult for small or tiny operators who not only have few drivers to choose from, but who cannot realistically afford to turn down a trip, irrespective of how crazy its hours are. It is not for no reason that the vast majority of catastrophic motorcoach accidents involve small operators – even though there are obviously many safe and responsible ones of that size.. But even among the safe and responsible small operators, practicing fatigue management principles can be challenging. So the clever ones do something involving far less risk and far more creativity: They employ a modified version of the existing practice of trip-trading.


Because supply and demand ebb and flow, most companies providing charter and tour service (where it is more difficult to assign drivers to the constantly-changing trip variations) regularly serve as subcontractors to one another:

  • A large company suddenly finding itself with too many trip requests calls upon its reliable stable of small-but-trustworthy operators to handle the overflow.
  • In return, when a small operator becomes overwhelmed, it returns the favor by “laying off” the trip onto one of the larger companies that often hires it to cover that company’s surplus when it occurs.

This dynamic can actually take two forms:

  • If one operator obtains a trip that requires a shift it does not have a well-rested driver to cover, it can engage a subcontractor – large company or small – that does.
  • With trust among companies with a solid core of common training and monitoring practices, the one requiring the late-night driver might be able to simply subcontract for the driver, and retain most of the profits from the trip that stem from deploying its own vehicle and the resources that accompany it.

Incentives and Ingenuity

One of the most challenging aspects of employing drivers on night runs is the fact that they return from nocturnal shifts to “the matinal world” on their days off. Much has been written about countless ways to do this well. (The best source I know of is an extremely affordable bi-weekly newsletter called “Working Nights,” published by Circadian Technologies, Inc.) Regardless, a driver working the “night” and “owl” periods would be far safer if he or she maintained the same awake and sleep hours on those days he or she was off-duty – and, thus, did not have to make any adjustments at all.

Few drivers tend to do this. But particularly in Today’s economy, I cannot help but feel that quite a few drivers would be happy to do so if they were paid better for it. This would not necessarily be a sacrifice by the company: A company could simply charge its clients a bit more for a trip involving unusual hours, and pass that extra sum onto the driver. A few percentages higher for the whole trip could mean a substantial increase in pay for the driver, whose wages comprise only a small portion of the trip’s total cost.

Stretching the creative envelope a bit further, a core of companies could reach a critical mass of such drivers by creating a pool of “night riders” who maintained night and owl hours throughout the week. These drivers might work for different companies from night to night. But whatever perceived risks this multi-employer model might pose would never remotely offset the safety benefits of having a pool of drivers operating your $450,000 motorcoach with its $10,000,000 liability policy when they are most alert.  In fairness, some institutional problems may arise, from State to State, with drivers jumping from company to company, trip by trip. But these problems can be addressed, especially if the solution involves safe drivers jumping from one safe, well-managed company to another.

Part Time Night Drivers and Answered Prayers

In Part 1 of this tiny series, I mentioned employing a lot of musicians during my L.A.-based paratransit operations whom I would never assign to a morning shift. These drivers were fine when they began a shift at noon.  But they would be even more reliable and alert on a shift that ran from 8 PM until 6 AM the next morning. Nowadays, musicians and many other night workers (restaurant employees, e.g.,) who might only work one or two nights a week would likely be thrilled to work two or three more nights, likely making even better money driving your motorcoach: Ironically, their “day gig” would really be their “night gig.” Keep in mind, a typical musician often works until two AM, packs up the gear, goes out for breakfast, and finally arrives home around 5 AM, after which he or she unwinds and finally gets to bed about 6 AM,, and sleeps until around 2 PM. Working only one or two nights a week, these individual would not likely keep these hours on their days off. Instead, they would often have to work some dreadful, low-paying jobs during the daytime – often on the same days of their more artistic or otherwise fulfilling night job – often weary during both of them.

In contrast, your hiring them could give them five or six nights’ work a week after which they could get a full night’s sleep – for many individuals, the answer to their prayers. They would not only be alert the whole time they were employed in both jobs, but they would almost certainly remain on that schedule on their one or two days off. In other words, you would have loyal, grateful, part-time drivers thrilled to make a decent living that enabled them to work a night or two at a job they really loved,  and who would repay you in spades by watching over your liability-laden empire like guard dogs. Further, you might not even have to pay such drivers a higher rate for operating these shifts: The ability to earn a living working a few extra nights, much less enabling them to work occasionally at something they really loved and at the same time earn a decent living, would be its own reward. Frankly, to many individuals with only a night or two of work they really love,  three or four additional nights’ work that enabled them to both earn a normal living plus get a full night’s sleep every single day would be a blessing, and their turnover rate would likely be your company’s lowest. We are talking here about people you could count on to care of your vehicles, your company and your passengers.

Calming your Qualms

Before abandoning these ideas as to “out-of-the-box,” remember that modern institutions like drug/alcohol screenings – much less random and reasonable suspicion testing – would limit the risks of hiring drivers whom you might tend to consider unusual employees. Oddly, a night crew of chefs, musicians and other artists would likely be better-educated and often more intelligent than your typical driver. So imagine unleashing this brainpower on the highways and byways with drivers who were also well-rested and fully alert.

As we all know, a plethora of really sketchy motorcoach operators was largely the effect of de-regulation. Realistically, I cannot see a reversal of these regulations on our horizon. History has proven that it is almost always easier to go forward than to go back. But a lot can be accomplished through the creative use of mechanisms we already have and use. Without any grand decree reversing de-regulation, we can reduce the small number of dangerous operators from our midst: The safe large companies could simply not engage them in trip-trading arrangements, and many of those excluded would effectively be squeezed out of the market, particularly one with such a thin profit margin to begin with. But more importantly – and this is a message of great hope – we can make the vast majority of our responsible operators even more safe by seeking out drivers not only willing, but happy, to live the nocturnal lifestyle 168 hours a week. Regardless of when most really terrible accidents occur (far more occur in the early morning than traditional sources admit), employing bio-sensitive driver assignment could and should be an important tool in our arsenal for reducing the need for fatigue management by avoiding shift inversion altogether.

Individuality and Innovation

One aspect of this approach involves a bit more flexibility and open-mindedness in recruiting and hiring drivers who may appear to lie apart from the typical stereotypes we envision as bus drivers. But some of the wonders of our society have come from such departures. Our skyscrapers were built largely by sure-footed Native Americans completely at ease walking around on I-beams 1500 feet above ground “without a net.” Police departments have found that comedians make the best driving-school teachers for motorists choosing a safe-driving course over a ticket and a fine. And prisoners are now training our security dogs. So it would help to remember that the principal dynamic that made us the greatest nation the solar system has ever seen was the melting pot that boiled over with new ideas, and the individualism that helped us lead the World with our endless innovation.

While we do not enjoy the exclusive guideways of our passenger rail and bus-on-freeway cousins, nor the favorable statistics of our airline counterparts, motorcoach travel can become significantly more safe than it already is. The standard should not be how much more safe motorcoach travel is than travel by an automobile one-tenth its mass driven by an untrained, non-professional driver. The standard should simply be how much safer we can make it than it already is. Employing bio-sensitive driver assignment can make a serious contribution to this second, far-more-meaningful goal.

Publications: National Bus Trader.