Bus Lag, Part 5: Skipping the In-Between

This is the fifth and final installment in a series about shift inversion, the principal cause of most catastrophic motorcoach accidents.

In the fourth installment of this series, I pointed out that shift inversion is often compounded by the fact that, with or without shift inversion, the Hours-of-Service regulations fail to deal at all with the question of whether or not the driver even sleeps in between shifts.

Unlike conventional catastrophic accidents involving sleep inversion, the accident described here actually involved a driver whose shifts were identical from day to day—and, in fact, a school bus driver—operating a split-shift, with several hours between his two half-shifts that could have accommodated a long nap. In a way, this form of driver assignment involves two semi-shifts several hours apart, but where the failure to use either the “nap period” between them or the period between the end of the second shift and the start of the next day’s first shift (the far-more-than-eight-hours required by the Hours of Service regulations) were abused and ignored.

Asleep at the Start

The “start” of this accident actually began long before the trip began. It began with negligent hiring. The driver hired not only had a history that included a plethora of transgressions—discharging students at points off the route alignment, stopping at convenience stores (with students on board), etc.—but, 10 years before, he had killed a two-year old when his bus rear-ended an automobile while he was talking on a cell-phone. Nevertheless, he was just fine for the huge mega company that hired him—a company that maximized the profits from its multiple acquisitions by practically eliminating the entire mid-level management from all of them, and thinning out the personnel about both the high and low ends (i.e., the local site) of the spectrum to a skeleton so thin that they were overwhelmed. As a result, they could not remotely perform the array of functions needed to operate safely, much less put the effort needed into hiring adequate driving personnel—whom this company paid roughly 30 per- cent less than the national average for contract operator drivers.

Echoing the problems at the defendant’s corporate level, on the morning of the incident, the driver-in-question had gotten so little sleep that, on his way to his first drop-off, the bus’ video (pulled by police personnel) revealed that he had passed completely through 10 stop signs, without slowing down a bit as he turned the corner or raced across the street after ignoring them. So it was hardly surprising that, when he reached the school’s driveway, he turned left into it directly in front of an unfortunately speeding car that ran into it with such force that, after beheading the driver and passenger, the front of the car literally emerged from the opposite side of the bus.

In another school bus accident in which I was also involved as an expert witness, the driver was so exhausted in the morning that he rear-ended a automobile stopped at a traffic light at full speed. He was sound asleep. The face of one of the students in the automobile’s rear seat was crushed practically to the thickness of a Frisbee, and she lost every single one of her teeth. That her eyes did not pop out, and the brilliant medical team (which built a model of her head and skull literally out of Lego blocks to use as a guide in reconstructing her face and head) managed to keep her alive after her skull was crushed and her brain squeezed to a fraction of its size is nothing but an argument for the existence of God. But it is also one of thousands of arguments for why the current Hours-of-Service regulations serve, at best, as a “guideline” for responsible companies and drivers, but otherwise, cannot be monitored without the introduction of technology whose absence make compliance with “fatigue management” unenforceable, and effectively worthless in the prevention of catastrophic accidents.

And all this fails to take into the account the extraordinary percentage of motorcoach drivers who likely possess undiagnosed and untreated Obstructive Sleep Apnea. A study of 480 Australian truck drivers performed about two years ago found that close to half of them possessed this condition—compared to roughly six percent of the general population.

Hours-of-What Regulations

As installment #4 of this series noted, what is the point of requiring an eight-hour period between shifts if there is no means of assuring that the driver uses any of it, or even a reasonable percentage of it, to sleep? Why this conundrum is important is that it actually dwarfs the problem of shift inversion, if not makes a mockery of the entire regulations altogether.

Recognizing that the “honor system” is effectively worthless, it is impossible to conclude that an form of Hours-of-Service Regulations based on this principle can have any meaning, or any teeth, if it is not accompanied by some way to ensure that, between shifts, the drivers spend at least most of their time sleeping.

As noted in the previous installment, even with an eight-hour span between shifts, if this minimum is all a driver has, he or she is highly unlikely to obtain anything near eight hours’ sleep. He or she must commute home (or a nearby motel), do whatever he/she needs or wants to do before retiring (hard to blame someone to claim a few minutes of intimacy with his or her spouse), fall asleep, shower (a “luxury” in this time frame), eventually awaken, wash up or shower, eat some semblance of a breakfast, commute back to work, and sign in. In the best of circumstances, for a driver who lives only a few minutes from work, it is hard to envision that driver obtaining much more than six hours’ sleep. Yet practically everyone and anyone in or outside the public transportation industry feels that everyone needs roughly eight-hours’ sleep—and the vast majority of them do not awaken from it to soon drive a 40,000 lb.+ motorcoach for 10 hours within a 15-hour span on duty during which time they must remain alert enough to perform skills like defensive driving requires. So who are we kidding with this naive, illusory, misleading and grossly-insufficient set of regulations?

Time for Change

The shenanigans that led to the Motorcoach industry’s exemption from the shift inversion restrictions are ironic. They led to so many catastrophic motorcoach accidents—particularly by small companies, with limited driver pools to draw upon, largely in the charter sector. An analysis of even a handful of these tragedies have revealed that the entire set of regulations are of minimal value unless adopted as guidelines, rigorously monitored and enforced, by a motorcoach operation’s management whose efforts lie significantly beyond the mere limitation of shift inversion. Fortunately, the majority of motorcoach companies (both large and small) have adopted some form (in the best cases most forms) of “fatigue management” principles and practices. Although they can only “suggest” that their drivers actually get a decent night’s sleep between shifts by examining them carefully when they arrive at work, and monitoring their performance and track record with limited resources for the former. We are indeed lucky that our industry contains the significantly high percentage of responsible owners and management personnel it does—compared to a plethora of other U.S. industries, large corporations in particular. Perhaps the specter of responsibility for safety, and the equally haunting fear of liability, have made our industry far more responsible than many. large U.S. corporations in terms of its control over the conduct and performance of its customer-contact personnel.

But the point cannot be lost that the Hours-of-Service regulations are little more than a smoke- screen for any genuine requirements that ensure the goals that the HOS profess to effect. At their best, in their present form for the motorcoach sector, they serve as the most minimal guidelines that would be employed by responsible companies even without them. After all, as pointed out in the previous installment, driving for more than 10 hours in a 15-hour span is exhausting, and somewhat self- enforces one’s obedience to this aspect of the regulations. But shift inversion is not that obvious, and the height of a drivers’ fatigue does not occur at the end of one’s shift, when the mere duration of one’s driving and on-duty performance begins to affect one’s level of alertness. By contrast, with shift inversion, a driver may begin his or her significantly-inverted shift at the height of alertness only for it to “crash” an some unexpected moment in the middle of it. Or even more commonly, may “crash” shortly after the beginning of it—because of the Bus Lag resulting from the fact that, at or near that same time the day or night before, that driver’s body was sound asleep.

Finally, in thinking through the folly of these regulations, and further, noting the catastrophic accidents that occur because drivers presumably or apparently did not even obtain the appropriate amount of sleep between shifts, even with NO shift inversion whatsoever, the other glaring failures of the Hours-of-Service regulations which they are powerless to effect or enforce demonstrate how ineffectual these regulations truly are. That they exist in an era where common and affordable technology can address these other aspects of the problem, just as they can address the Sleep Apnea component—is all the more reason that the continued application of motorcoach-sector Hours-of-Service regulations is patently ineffective and dysfunctional, and should be radically revised as quickly as possible.

Sleep Apnea diagnosis and treatment, sleep monitoring technology, the expansion of the time between the end of one shift and the start of the subsequent one, and the elimination of unlimited shift inversion lie easily within our grasp. There are no good arguments of which I am aware for maintaining them. Unfortunately, the tradition that appears to justify their existence is one of unnecessary mayhem, for which our industry should not only be deeply ashamed, and for which our members are often held liable, and which is a reflection of the most twisted, archaic thinking that fails to deliver what we as an industry can otherwise contribute to a far-more-sane mobility landscape. Unfortunately, the continued employment of this tradition reflects what we currently are. And judging from the ugliness of the worst of our catastrophic accidents, that reflection is not only unnecessary and repulsive: It is unjustified. And it is inexcusable. Further, the economic cost and effort for modernizing it are minimal in comparison to the monetary and human costs of not doing so.

While I will not argue that these regulations serve as a cosmology that illustrates the moral bankruptcy of our society as a whole, it clearly illustrates the moral bankruptcy of our industry. The fact that accident rates for fellow modes (other than commercial aircraft) are even worse is hardly an excuse for our failure to effect measures that we can easily and, at a reasonably low cost, use to significantly bolster our industry’s safety record. It is a cheap, phony excuse for doing nothing.

America is not a great nation because it is superior to, say, North Korea or Syria. Along these lines, the motorcoach industry’s exemplary safety record reflects little more than the fact that the mass of our vehicles is roughly 10 times that of the fellow vehicles we strike, and the impact forces our vehicles absorb in a typical vehicle-to-vehicle collision are roughly one hundredth as severe as those of the vehicles we strike. This is hardly a compelling argument for our safety record. Instead, it is a specious ruse that disguises the excellence we could truly achieve with a few changes that lie well within our means.


Publications: National Bus Trader.