Bus Lag, Part 4: The Invisible Log, Redux – Logs, Black Boxes and Spoliation

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

In this particular incident—in which a motorcoach miraculously did not kill anyone but merely mutilated a stalled motorist -the incident happened within 30 minutes of the driver’s sixth hour on the road, and during the eighth hour of his planned 14-and-a-half-hour trip span. So, at least in theory, the Hours-of-Service Regulations were not violated. But something was surely amiss—including the fact that the driver tossed away the log for the outbound leg of his round trip as soon as he completed it. If there is an argument for the need for on-board flight recorders, this case provides its “poster boy.”

The allegedly-planned 14-and-a-half-hour out-and-back trip, with three rest periods within this span, was clearly compliant with HOS regulations—if the trip’s parameters cited were indeed legitimate, as the first half of it suggested they were. The original trip originated in San Ysidro, Mexico, at around noon, stopped in Tijuana for an hour at 2:00 p.m., and resumed travel at 3:30 p.m., terminating in Huntington Park (a suburb of Los Angeles) at 6:30 p.m.—most of it on high-speed freeways. At the intermediate 90-minute stop at 2:00 p.m. the driver testified he “serviced” the coach. After only two hours of driving, there hardly would seem to be any need for a nap.

90 minutes after its arrival in Huntington Park, at 8:00 p.m., the driver began his return trip to San Ysidro. The degree to which the driver actually took a nap from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., compared to eating or performing other non-driving duties, was never made clear. Regardless, he would likely have arrived back in San Ysidro around 2:30 a.m.. (after another one-hour, corresponding intermediate stop in Tijuana) had the incident not occurred.

Roughly 45 minutes into the driver’s return trip, during only his sixth hour of driving, and ninth hour of service altogether, with his coach traveling at roughly 65 mph, it rear-ended a pick-up truck that was poised in the left, HOV lane while its driver tried to tie down his truck’s hood latch, which had just moments before, popped open, after which he pulled over to repair it. The impact from the un-braked motorcoach striking a pickup truck of roughly one-tenth the coach’s mass, at 65 mph, knocked the truck forward violently, and in turn, knocked its driver (standing in front) up and over the median barrier, where he landed in the HOV lane of the freeway’s oncoming direction—and miraculously was not run over by a third vehicle traveling in that lane.

Putting these clues together, any number of things could have happened:

  • The trip could have begun earlier than stated (which was impossible to know because the outbound logs were destroyed immediately after the outbound segment of the trip).
  • The driver could have had Obstructive Sleep Apnea—as recent studies suggest between 30 and 40 percent of all motorcoach and truck drivers do (whereas only truck drivers’ shift inversions are limited by the very same HOS regulations as motorcoaches—except without the “waiver” of shift inversion limits granted to the motorcoach industry).
  • The driver’s shift the day before was unknown—even though he testified that he had driven the exact same shift, during the exact same hours, the day before.
  • The driver might have made less-than-perfect use of the nine-and-a-half hours he had between shifts—some of which was consumed (presumably) by performing postand pre-inspection check-outs, some consumed by his commutes to and from work, some consumed by eating, showering, relaxing, exercising, or doing any number of things to unwind.

Theory or Reality

While the vast majority of Americans value their privacy and don’t want to live in the World of “1984” with “Big Brother,” it is pretty clear that an honor-system-based eight-hour off-duty period sandwiched between two 15-hour spans of service is not enough. This is a troubling issue for the industry. For it means not only that many or most motorcoach drivers are not getting a sufficient amount of sleep between shifts—even without the twin gremlins of shift inversion and Sleep Apnea—but that a longer break would greatly complicate the scheduling process, wreaking havoc on the vast majority of safe, law-abiding, well-managed companies performing intercity/scheduled service and tour service, with most shifts similar or identical from day to day. Only the computer/express sector would be largely unaffected.

It is also a naïve issue. This is because we already live in a World of “Bigger Brother”—only now he records all our telephone calls and other communications, and has an arsenal of drones to dispatch should our behavior or opinions deviate too far from the norm. Regardless of the problems a longer off-duty period would create, it is undeniable that an eight-hour, honor-system-based off-duty period is pure folly. And with “Bigger Brother” already here (Harvard students are already working on a military-funded project developing insect-sized drones), the installation of flight recorders is not only a trivial diminution of our privacy, but a significant check on our integrity and physical condition. Frankly, as a motorcoach passenger, I would like to know that some proof existed that, between shifts, my driver actually got a sufficient amount of unimpaired sleep—and we already have the technology to measure the quality of this sleep period without any reasonable intrusion into our privacy.

Extrapolating Conclusions from Limited Evidence

From the uneven evidence of this not-so-unusual trip, the trip appears to have been designed for the driver to travel for only five hours in each direction, with two one-hour rest breaks and one 90minute rest break in between—for a total span of only 14-amd-a-half-hours. If every bit of this schedule had been accurate, no hours of service violations would have been committed.

Yet two aspects of this trip (apart from the absence of logs, much less correctly-completed logs) seemed either unusual or suspicious:

  1. The trip was best-suited only to a “nocturnal driver,” one accustomed to awakening late and retiring late. Thus the chances of a driver with a matinal circadian rhythm to get a “good night’s sleep” between even trips of this nature without any shift inversion would be greatly diminished.
  2. The spoliation of driver’s logs makes it impossible to even know to what degree shift inversion had occurred—adding yet more uncertainty to the puzzle this trip and incident involved. Coupled with no evidence of the driver’s sleep duration or the and quantity and quality of his or her sleep between shifts, it is almost impossible to draw any conclusions about the cause of this incident.

Do these huge gaps in knowledge color the existing of Hours-of-Service regulations useful? I would acknowledge that the HOS regulations provide various degrees of marginal insight, depending on the knowledge of other factors. But in terms of controlling driver fatigue, restricting shift inversion, measuring the quantity and quality of sleep between shifts, and verifying the accuracy of driver’s logs, this technology is profoundly useless and hopelessly obsolete.

Shift Inversion and Camouflage

Quite simply, compounded by gaping holes in related knowledge, our lack of restricting shift inversion is a major flaw—if not the major flaw—in the HOS regulations. But even if shift inversion were illegal and its compliance enforceable—an improvement within our means and resources—the cluster of other unknowns would still not guarantee that every motorcoach would be staffed with an alert driver throughout the trip.

Technology, Integrity and Social Factors

Interestingly, our drug-testing laws pose a challenge to alertness. Snorting cocaine every four hours would likely keep drivers as alert as Navy Seals—as long as they did not run out of cocaine. The obvious downside of this approach—and why it is facetious as a solution (whereas coffee performs effectively the same function, albeit with far lesser extremes)—is that when the “high” wears off, the user “crashes.” While the same could be true of caffeine, it is much more accessible, much more affordable, and does not possess the depth of “crash” produced like those of controlled substances when their powers begin to wear off.

Regarding integrity, most driver are clearly aware that they do not wish to drive while exhausted. And many seasoned drivers possess countless—if not perfectly-legal tricks—to keep themselves at least awake (even if only marginally alert) during those hours when their bodies would normally be sound asleep. So the duration-related elements of what constitutes the essence of our Hours-of-Service regulations are almost redundant. In contrast, the aspect of these regulations that would contribute enormously to reducing accidents—limiting shift inversion—are absent altogether.

Illusions and Alarmism

As these installments increasingly reveal, the Hours-of-Service regulations are a mess, and frankly, an international embarrassment. Most professional motorcoach drivers and companies are largely aware of these omissions, and many of them practice fatigue management principles religiously. But particularly smaller charter operators with fewer choices for assigning drivers, and which do not enjoy the regularity (and profits) that their larger counterparts do in the tour, intercity/scheduled service and commuter/express sectors, effectively have a choice between taking any and every trip requested and starving to death.

It is largely for this last reason that not only must the Hours-of-Service regulations be radically changed, law enforcement efforts be significantly expanded, and flight recorder mandated (which should be relatively easy to retrofit), but that the concept of the Hours-of-Service regulations need to be expanded radically—particularly in an era where technology affords us the opportunity to monitor whether or not a driver has obtained a sufficient amount of quality sleep. The fact that an eight-hour, off-duty drinking binge between shifts starting and ending at identical times—in other words, no remote shift inversion—still leaves a broad invitation for mayhem on the table, and should be a strident wake-up call to anyone who can think clearly—including Federal regulatory agencies, the law enforcement community, and the information-sharing “lobbying/umbrella” organizations that profess to represent the interests of the motorcoach industry and its passengers. 

Publications: National Bus Trader.