Bus Lag, Part 3: The Invisible Log

This is the third installment in a series about sleep inversion, the principal cause of most catastrophic motorcoach accidents.

In this particular incident – which amazingly killed only two passengers — the driver actually did violate hours-of-service regulations. However, because of the structure of the trip, he was able to effortlessly jettison his first set of logs without any trace of them, and simply began a new set for the second half of his 16-hour or so hours of near-non-stop driving. Interestingly – and a salient illustration of the near worthlessness of the HOS regulations as now structured — the incident occurred only about an hour into the start of the driver’s second trip segment – when he had not yet driven for even 10 full hours legitimately. But because of the hours he had been driving on his “secret leg” – those hours when his body would normally have been sound asleep, he was completely exhausted by the time he began his second leg, and shortly after a strong cup of coffee and a candy bar (great breakfast, huh?), he fell sound asleep behind the wheel.

This incident occurred entirely because the company’s owner was simply too cheap to have the driver deadhead to the start of the next morning’s pickups, and crash in a cheap motel the night before. So, deadheading from central California around 11:00 PM Sunday night, the driver reached his first pickup about 7:30 the next morning – the first of about 10 students he was to transport to a school for the hearing- and speech-impaired located just north of Bakersfield. After picking up the first six or so of them – all of whom, as noted, could neither hear nor talk – the driver approached a bridge on U.S. 101N, fell completely asleep, and his body-on-chassis bus (which did surprisingly well given the accident scenario), traveling at 68 mph., crashed through a guardrail, flew 122 feet horizontally, crashed into a steep embankment, and rolled over, downhill, several complete times, until it came to rest against a stop sign positioned on the side of the roadway that ran beneath the bridge. 

Remarkably, the only two of the six or seven passengers were killed – both of them trapped beneath the same, street-side passenger window. Despite the multiple rollovers, not a single other window popped out, and from my inspection of the vehicle, it appeared that the only seats even distorted were likely those that had contained passengers. All had lapbelts, although there was no way to know which of them had been used – although one suspects that the two ejectees did not use their belts. Otherwise, the bus crushed just like it was designed to: The driver’s compartment completely collapsed, absorbing most of the impact forces (remember: the front cap struck the embankment, and at a considerable speed) – although, remarkably, the driver not only lived, but was not even injured that severely. A few meters into the passenger compartment, other than the few twisted seats and some dented roof panels, most of the bus looked as though it had just rolled out of the showroom.

Obvious and Oblivious Documentation

Naturally, intending to violate the HOS regulations by driving roughly 16 or so hours straight (minus a few brief rest stops), the driver jettisoned his nighttime, “deadhead” logs the minute he reached the southern end of his route. Since there were no passengers on board during that segment of the trip, and nothing unusual happened along the way, who could possibly know, right? Frankly, had the incident on the return trip not occurred, no one (other than the driver, the company owner and the dispatcher would have known, and at least the owner clearly did not care – although it is impossible to speak for the dispatcher, and I feel certain that the driver cared a great deal, even before the incident occurred).

Once the incident occurred, of course, and an extensive investigation began, it became obvious what had happened. The driver could produce no hotel or motel receipt, and the odometer readings served as unavoidable tell-tale documentation for the total trip length (when compared with odometer readings of trips performed the day or two before). But the point is, minus the incident, there was no way for any regulatory or enforcement officer or agency to know about the first trip unless an officer had boarded the bus during that segment and had examined the logs. So the point is that logs only serve as a deterrent to the degree an independent observer examines them. When one does not, they can simply be discarded, as was the log for the first segment of this trip.

To a company that operates safely with respect to avoiding sleep inversion, it somehow does not seem quite fair that it should pay the same insurance premiums as one that blatantly ignores this issue, as well as the duration-only-oriented Hours-of-Service regulations altogether – unless or until the latter manages to kill and maim a few passengers.

Sleep Inversion and Sleep Illusion

Without documentation of the first of the two trip segments involved in this incident, there was similarly no proof of the obviously sleep inversion that occurred throughout most of the first trip segment. But there is no remote doubt that the sleep inversion that occurred during the first trip segment was responsible for exhausting the driver during his second trip segment, even though he drove only a tiny slice of it before the incident occurred.

Given this reality, it is hard to tell whether the duration of the trip (what the Hours-of-Service requirements are designed to measure) was the contributing factor to the incident, or whether it was the driver’s sleep inversion during the first leg. I tend to think, in this case, it was both – particularly because during the second segment of the trip, the driver’s body temperature began to return to its normal level for that time of day, since this was essentially the time he was awake most days. So ironically, had the driver remained awake a few more hours, it is likely that his body temperature would have risen enough to keep him a bit more awake than he was early that morning, and he might have completed the second segment of the trip unscathed. So much for the value of duration – which is generally self-correcting. This is why, despite so much despicable malarkey to the contrary, the majority of catastrophic accidents – at least those I am familiar with – tend to occur in the mid-morning rather than between 2 and 6 AM as so much mythology seems to imply they do.  But even this pattern simply reflects sleep inversion:  A driver sleeping until 3 PM in the afternoon would not likely have any trouble on a run that night that encompassed this alleged, grossly-oversimplistic “period of danger.”  In other words, the hours themselves when an accident occurs are completely irrelevant as a causation factor. Instead, what matters is how those hours compared to whether the driver was awake or asleep during similar hours the day and night before.

Worst Case Scenarios and Secondary Factors

What was so tragic about this particular accident was that the passengers were both hearing- and speech-impaired. So although they were wide awake, none of them were able to shout at the driver (which might have jolted him awake  — at least enough to pull over to the side of the road) when they noticed the vehicle drifting toward the bridge’s guardrail. Yet it is a curious thing that so many incidental factors contribute to these accidents. For example, in the Sherman, Texas accident (the subject of the “Enough is Enough” series in NBT, 2013), practically every passenger on the coach was sound asleep when the driver dozed off and was only startled awake when his vehicle entered a rumble strip traveling 76 mph. Similarly, in the famous Carrollton, KY school bus submersion almost 35 years ago, once the school bus drove into a ditch filled with water, a bunch of fat kids got stuck trying to exit the relatively-small school bus windows, and in so doing, doomed those behind them (who might otherwise have escaped) to drowning. But these secondary factors do indeed occur, and while they contribute nothing to causation, they often do prevent the passengers from mitigating the impending disaster.

Causing the Accident and Paying for it

Of course, as one might expect, the decedents’ and injured passengers’ lawyers did not simply sue the operator, whose limited insurance coverage did not begin to cover the “damages.” Instead, they filed against the bus manufacturer (which I was helping defend), and even Caltrans (for a defective guard rail). If you have not learned by now, this is what lawyers do, and this is what our legal system allows them to do. Common sense rarely enters into decisions about motions for dismissal (referred to as Motions for Summary Judgment in the legal world).

So let us review what our current regulatory environment permits, if not encourages: The least safe, most crooked and indifferent operating companies who ignore the limpid HOS regulations, and who practice no remote form of “fatigue management,” provide the most trips, and possess the potential for earning the greatest profits. Their passengers are ignorant pawns sacrificed to the benefit of endless casinos, amusement parks, points of interest and other venues. Most often, they are also the poorest motorcoach passengers, typically sleeping on the coach during its nighttime run in order to save them the cost of a hotel or motel room. The regulations that limit the duration of one’s driving serve little purpose, since most drivers tend to tire about after 10 hours of driving and 15-hour shifts anyway, and the degree to which these hours would be exceeded in the absence of any regulations whatsoever would likely be minimal. Finally, the existing regulations permit companies and their drivers to legally operate 45,000-lb. vehicles with up to 55 passengers during the precise hours when, the very day before, the drivers’ bodies were sound asleep, and there is no conceivable way that they could adjust to operate alertly during those same or similar hours a mere day later. Oh, and now, this environment is being used as an excuse for quadrupling insurance premiums, and grotesquely modifying motorcoach structures in ways that would increase their mass and rollover propensity. What the reader should be hearing is not the screeching of brakes. It is the sound of one hand clapping.

This is some set of regulations. Beyond useless and counterproductive, they are idiotic. They attempt to prohibit minor problems that general take care of themselves, while allowing enormous risks known to science for decades. They are not only an international embarrassment, but a domestic one since our trucking industry is not remotely permitted to transport even packages or equipment according to such rules. And apart from demolishing our poorest travelers, the catastrophic accidents that result form a blight  on an industry of increasing importance that, frankly, we need to expand wildly to merely keep pace with the number of residents tossed out of our “Middle Class” faster than we can count them. Somehow, when the huge gift from France lying at the foot of New York harbor beckoned the rest of the World to, “Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” I doubt it envisioned so many of them moving about in this once great nation on vehicles with drivers in the same condition.       

Publications: National Bus Trader.