Bus Lag, Part 1: Non-driving, Off-duty and Awake the Whole Time – On HOS Requirements

The phenomenon known as jet lag only emerged in the 20th Century because, before then, it was not something that could be experienced since there was no way to change several times zones in a single day. With the introduction of airline travel, and particularly jet airline travel, it easily became possible to often change more than 10 time zones in a day, particular if the flight path was somewhat diagonal (i.e., over the arctic circle) rather than mostly latitudinal.

For air travel, of course, this phenomenon is experienced by the passengers, not the pilots. The pilots’ shifts are rigorously scrutinized to ensure that they are at their peak of alertness the nanosecond they get behind the stick, and remain that way until the plane lands. And long connecting flights, in particular, employ teams of pilots, just like coast-to-coast intercity motorcoach services do (or should). But there is one very a big difference between jet lag on airplanes compared to bus lag on motorcoaches: Jet lag is something the passengers experience, not the pilots. In contrast, bus lag is something the drivers experience.  Witness:

A motorcoach full of passengers left Los Angeles County for Las Vegas at around 6 PM, Saturday evening, arriving at a cheap, suburban hotel-and-casino at roughly 11 PM. The passengers were given rooms – two per room – for only $15, while their bus fares were fully paid for by the casino. A good deal, right? Wrong. In return for their $15/night shared rooms, the passengers were not allowed to sleep in them. Instead, they were required to spend the entire night at the casino’s slot machines (or other gaming tables). Similarly, in return for this single, long-day’s bonanza, the coach’s owner-operator had the responsibility to make sure that his passengers – tagged with large orange badges before they even alighted from the coach – remained awake and actively gambling the entire night.

At roughly 9 AM – after he had been “off-duty” for more than eight full hours – the driver grouped together his passengers, and drove them into downtown Las Vegas to a somewhat fancier casino, where they arrived at roughly 10 AM, immediately stuffed themselves at the more luxurious buffet tables, and gambled for a few more hours. Then, at roughly 2 PM, the passengers once again boarded the coach and returned to Los Angeles County. At roughly 6 PM, nearing the drop-off destination, the driver sped over a construction area on a freeway while tailgating another motorcoach only about five feet in front of it. So when the phalanx of vehicles in front suddenly slammed on their brakes, the motorcoach-in-question rear-ended the one five feet in front of it at roughly 50 mph. Most of the seat-anchorages broke, and the seat-legs wrapped around most of the passengers’ ankles and legs, breaking more bones than one normally sees in an afternoon at a natural history museum.

Did the driver-in-question violate any Hours-of-Service requirements? Of course not:

  • His original trip took only about five hours
  • He had more than eight hours off between the end of his first trip and the start of the second segment
  • The second segment involved only about an hour
  • The driver then took another four hours off-duty
  • Finally, the driver began the third, five-hour segment of the combined trip back to the trip’s origin
  • Even counting the one-hour-long second segment of this trip, the four hours after that when he was “off-duty,” and finally the last five-hour-long return trip, his second day’s run (segments #2 and #3) would have involved only six hours of driving within an 10-hour span (had he completed it)

Sound OK to you? Well it is certainly OK with the FMCSA, thanks to a massive lobbying effort, more than a decade ago, that the FMCSA could not combat. In fact, in Hours-of-Service terms, the trip described above was relatively tame. It was also highly profitable for everyone concerned (not considering the passengers’ likely gambling losses). It was certainly good for the motorcoach operator: With 57 passengers, and even with round-trip fares as low as perhaps $20 per passenger (paid for by the casino), our driver earned a gross of $1140 in a single 24-hour period. After the cost of fuel and maintenance, he likely still earned more than a thousand dollars in this single day. And best of all, these poor passengers got to take this fabulous, round trip, absolutely free – and paid only $7.50 each to share a room for an entire night (that they could at least return to in order to shower, change clothes, and fix their make-up). And, of course, the casino did great: For renting 28 seedy rooms for about nine hours — when the Saturday-night demand for rooms was low anyway — it got 57 individuals glued to its slot machines and other gaming devices for nine full hours – and another, fancier casino downtown got them for yet another four hours – this time only for a fancy buffet, without having to provide even a single room. So what was so wrong with this? Everyone benefitted, right? Go ahead: Think it through. I will give you 10 seconds.

OK. Your 10 seconds are up. Now, if it is not already obvious, I will tell you what is wrong with this: At the point the driver pummeled, at high speed, into the rear-end of the coach in front of him (an unaffiliated motorcoach, whose position was simply a coincidence), our driver had been awake for at least 24 full hours (unless he managed to take a short nap during the four hours at the second casino where he had no baby-sitting responsibilities). And this would only be so if he had awakened the very minute before he began his trip the night before. Of course, the far-more-important problem with this trip was the fact that, under the Hours-of-Service regulations, it was perfectly legal.

Of course, it is also obvious that almost every one of these passengers ended up severely injured. Those who were lucky merely broke a few bones in their feet and ankles. Big deal. So most of them would simply limp around with some pain for a few months, and experience arthritis a few decades earlier than their peers did. And so what? Many of them were already elderly and experiencing arthritis anyway. Very likely, only a handful spent the rest of their lives in a wheelchair, or using a walker or cane. But, hey, these are gamblers, right? And look at all the fun they had for so little money (other than the money they almost certainly lost to the two casinos). And obviously this scenario does not happen to most passengers taking this type of trip. Other than perhaps soldiers and medical interns, motorcoach drivers are likely among the best of our population at staying awake for unreasonably long stretches of time – and thanks to the impunity our regulations allow them, they have plenty of experience getting good at it. 

What is genuinely wrong with this scenario is that the Hours-of-Service regulations fail to prevent the single factor that causes MOST catastrophic motorcoach accidents: Shift inversion. Had the second day of our driver’s start time been limited to within three hours before or after the shift he began driving the evening before, he would not have been allowed to begin his return trip until, at the earliest, 3 PM that Sunday afternoon – not at 9 AM. This constraint would have made this trip either impossible, or at least would have forced the passengers to remain gambling at the suburban hotel until 3 PM – unless they needed to conk out earlier, and if so, could have retreated to the coach to sleep on board in the scorching desert sun. And with his baby-sitting duties over at 9 AM, the driver could have done likewise – although one suspects that the cheap, suburban hotel-casino would have thrown six hours in a room, at a “day rate,” as part of “the deal” – at least giving the driver a chance at a six-hour nap. Under even this scenario – while the driver was likely exhausted by being forced to remain awake all night, he more than likely would not have been nearly as exhausted with this nap, particularly if he had arisen late Saturday afternoon, only an hour or two before the trip began. But even if not, and even if he was completely exhausted, he had completed his five-hour drive to the first hotel by 11:00 PM Saturday night, and upon arrival, could hardly do any serious damage during to his passengers during the next nine hours while he remained awake to simply “police” their feeding the casino’s slot machines. In contrast, the problem began on the second day of this trip, at 9 AM, when the driver had been awake for at least 15 hours, even though he was “off duty” for 10 of them. With the generous flexibility granted him by the hours-of-service requirements, he was able to begin driving again nine hours earlier than he had begun his shift the early evening before.

In other words, under the current hours-of-service regulations, our driver was not only allowed to transport his passengers to another casino in the morning, but hours later, drive back to his “home base” –  with his second day’s two trip segments, with a four-hour break between them, comprising a span of only 10 hours, of which he drove only six. Of course, as noted, consistent with the latitude of these regulations, the driver was effectively allowed to remain awake for more than a full day, such that his entire return trip from downtown Las Vegas to Los Angeles occurred during the very time his body should have been soundly asleep, and as the incident suggests, was close to soundly asleep: Keep in mind that, before careening into the motorcoach in front of him at 50 mph., the driver sped through a construction zone, at freeway speeds, five feet behind a vehicle of the same size and mass.

When most people who have a choice are this tired, they go to sleep – often because they are jet-lagged. But not only was our driver severely bus-lagged, he was allowed to begin driving again  after being awake for 20 full hours. Is it any wonder that this incident occurred?

Fantasy or Obscenity

It is hard to know which term best describes this perfectly-legal motorcoach driving experience. The point is that our current regulations not only allow it, but their extraordinary flexibility practically encourages it.  But there is no doubt what word best characterizes our current Hours-of-Service requirements. That word is ‘impotent.’ Because they are completely unable to prevent a scenario like the one described above from happening. Worse, the fundamental cause of this incident, shift inversion, is clearly the cause of most catastrophic motorcoach accidents – at least the cause of those that I have had a change to examine as an expert witness. Otherwise, one glance at the driver’s accurately-filled-out-logs would have shown them to be in stellar compliance with FMVSS requirements.

Rather than continue preaching about this regulatory embarrassment, or complain about those responsible for it, I intend to fill the next several installments with different examples of other motorcoach trips which, because of the shift inversion allowed, resulted in similar or far more devastating catastrophic accidents.

With regulations the way they are, the problem is not merely an occasional driver who falls asleep at the wheel. The problem is also that the vast majority of our nation’s safe, sensible motorcoach company owners fail to realize why their insurance premiums are so high. Maybe it is time that they awaken as well.

Publications: National Bus Trader.