Whatever else we may have learned from the previous nine installments of this series (Parts 1-7B), it is clear that the vast lion’s share of catastrophic motorcoach accidents have involved small, despicably-operated “mom-and-pop” charter operations. Most of these operations deploy mostly old and poorly-maintained vehicles. They are operated by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel—usually because their shifts began significantly earlier or later than the one they drove the day before. And finally, these operators’ “systems” (such as they are) often embrace countless violations of FMCSA regulations
Many of these operations were actually taken out of service by Federal or state law enforcement officials — only to see the same vehicles and drivers emerge, sometimes merely days later, working for new companies created almost overnight by the owners of the same perpetrators ordered to shut down.
If the five core characteristics comprising this broth of mayhem —crooked operators, shift inversion, driver fatigue, inadequate law enforcement and gross cross-subsidies in insurance premiums —indeed comprise the core of the problem, the most significant and first steps to be taken to mitigate them would seem to be:
- eliminate these operators from the public transportation landscape
- criminally punish those at the helm of such operations
- limit “shift inversion” to no more than three hours per successive shift
- bolster the volume and authority of our law enforcement officers and judicial system
- increase insurance coverage limits for our operators, and discount the premiums, on some rational merit basis, for those who excel in safety
There are many reasons why schoolbuses — which outnumber motorcoaches by 15- or 20-to1 —experience so far fewer catastrophic accidents. even though the largest of these vehicles are nothing but “truck conversions” constructed on mere modified truck chassis. In fairness, much of this community’s limited carnage is a reflection of the low-fatigue nature of its drivers’ duty cycles, and the precise day-to-day consistency of most of their drivers’ shifts. But a component of this sector’s safety record stems from the fact that its members openly welcome regulation. In contrast, our community not only loathes it, but opposes it … and even lobbies against it. The worst example of this, by far, was the UMA’s and ABA’s concerted efforts, roughly a decade ago, to lobby aggressively against revisions to the Hours-of-Service (HOS) requirements accepted and welcomed by the trucking industry (and similar regulations accepted by our Canadian counterparts’ motorcoach sector) that would have limited shift inversion to no more than three hours earlier or later than the shifts driven the day before began.
Other than in this single area, I have been a supporter of both these otherwise excellent organizations, and they have both done much to enhance motorcoach safety. In this decade alone, the ABA has held meetings of its Bus Industry Safety Counsel twice a year – and even pays for much of its attendees’ travel expenses. Similarly, the UMA created the Bus & Motorcoach Academy, which provides a broad range of on-line courses for both motorcoach drivers and management officials. And they promote the objectives of most of their members in countless ways. Perhaps because they have begun to recognize the limits of the voluntary “Fatigue Management” programs they endorse, the AMA and UMA, among other organizations, recently lent their support to an effort to create regulations to control Obstructive Sleep Apnea – which a recent Australian study of 480 truck driver found almost half of them to possess – even though these organizations supported its creation only through the sluggish rulemaking process to which few organizations and individuals respond, and which can be swayed by a few dozen sets of comments intended to quash any such regulations.
Even so, what do we do about the perhaps 60 percent of bus drivers who do not possess this condition, yet fall asleep at the wheel primarily because the “jet lag” they experience from day-to-day is effectively unlimited as a regulatory matter? Sure, one can only drive for 10 hours within a 15-hour span of time, and after that, must be off duty for eight hours. Otherwise, those 10 hours of driving and 15 hours on duty can change so dramatically from day to day that a shift can result in a driver operating a motorcoach during practically the same hours that his or her body was fast asleep the very day before. According to one schoolbus publication, one Congressman (Representative Larry Buchon, R-Md.) was concerned that the Sleep Apnea screening, diagnosis and treatment program could cost a billion dollars a year (School Bus Fleet, September 16, 2013. For all we know, that estimate seemingly pulled out of thin air may be realistic. However, less than one percent of the target audience for this program would encompass the motorcoach industry. So its share of these costs would be a whopping $10M a year. I cannot help wondering, for example, how MCI feels about the burden of this program, having shelled out $120M in the settlement of just two lawsuits related to catastrophic accidents that occurred a mere three years apart, not to even mention the other leviathan companies sucked into these lawsuits and their settlement costs. Again, of course, the Sleep Apnea program would affect fewer than half the motorcoach drivers on the road. In contrast, the principal costs of keeping the rest of the bad ones off the road might reflect the burdened salaries of a thousand or so additional law enforcement officers, a few score more additional judges and their courtrooms’ staff, and the prison costs associated with housing the perpetrators. Of course, violating HOS requirements would have to be illegal, as a criminal matter, for these costs to produce meaningful results. At the moment, we are not remotely there: Recently, the owner of a company that sprung up overnight after his existing company was removed from operations for 24 regulatory violations was indicted on six counts: Four of them were for “providing false information.” My how his wrist must hurt.
Fatigue management is our industry’s answer for the absence of any meaningful anti-fatigue regulation. To be fair, for creating and promoting these concepts, sharing it with industry members, and advocating strongly for its usage, both the UMA and ABA should be highly commended, and our industry, as a whole, owes them a debt of gratitude for their efforts in this behalf. Partly as a consequence of the emphasis on fatigue management, most of the largest motorcoach companies have embraced this approach and its details, as have many or most of the compliant and competently-run regional motorcoach providers, and even many of the small and miniscule ones (the 4,000 companies deploying a single vehicle). The problem is, of course, that while these participants comprise the vast majority of our members, they comprise a small minority of those operators involved in catastrophic accidents. We are throwing knowledge to everyone, but those who most need it are not only failing to catch it, they are not even trying. More accurately, they are not even interested. Preaching to the choir is a weak metaphor for this failure. A more accurate analogy would be failing to see the trees through the bark. The only conclusion one can reasonably derive from this misdirection, and the carnage that seeps through it, is that, clearly, fatigue management is not working. Acrobats do not need wheelchairs. Nor is it worth throwing a life raft to someone who cannot catch. Feeding the Homeless misses the mark almost by definition: If the Homeless needed food, we would refer to them as the Foodless. We do not. So It is not much of stretch to equate feeding the Homeless to fatigue management.
There is no need to exaggerate the embarrassing failure of fatigue management by the enumeration of endless analogies. To a great degree, we as an industry control much of our own destiny. We enforce speed limits. Vehicles must be certified to comply with dozens of regulatory requirements. Drivers must undergo many of six types of drug/alcohol screening. Many of our highways and byways are still under decent repair. Yet the carnage marches on unabated, and those entities – motorcoach manufacturers and their suppliers – which are least responsible for it often end up paying for most of it not only disproportionately, but almost exponentially.
One thing we could do much better would be to direct our remedies to those most in need of them. Targeting fatigue management mostly to the majority of those within our industry who would likely embrace its principles anyway comprises an almost trivial contribution to the solution. The solution is to require its application to all of us. We have only to look at our big corporations and governments to recognize how poorly the “honor system” works.
Regulations and Enforcement
The United States does not imprison five times more of its population than any other nation on Earth for no reason. We need only examine the last half-century’s erosion and near disappearance of consumer protection, and the toothless anti-monopoly efforts made by our national legislature to recognize that statutes and regulations have little or no meaning without the resources to enforce compliance with them. It is time to grow up and face the mirror. The first step to stopping the carnage, and to stop a handful of innocent victims and their insurance carriers from cross-subsidizing bandits who cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in damage awards and settlements is to remove the real culprits from the transportation landscape. To do this, we must hold everyone responsible for his or her, or his or her company’s or agency’s behavior, and to hold them accountable not only civilly, but criminally. Interestingly, the Department of Justice recently made an important step in this direction by indicting a motorcoach owner for his contribution to an accident that killed 17 passengers, and mutilated countless others, more than five years ago — the accident which this series of installments is about. At least this effort comprised a start. But was a pathetically poor start. Not only must the other steps noted above occur, but they must encompass exponentially more penalties, and far greater disparities and equity in insurance premiums. More importantly, these changes must occur increasingly until the problem begins to decline significantly.
We have taken lead out of our paint. We have made our children’s toys safe. We have even made our vehicles safe. But we have failed to remove those who do not operate them responsibility from the scene. The time to do that has long past. But it not too late to redirect our efforts to still make it happen. Slapping an occasional perpetrator’s wrists will only count as a meaningful start if it is succeeded by the structure needed to greatly address the problem, and an effort to effectively use the tools which that structure creates. In my opinion, adopting the HOS revisions applied to our trucking industry a decade ago, criminally punishing those who violate it, eliminating the cross-subsidies in our insurance premiums while increasing the coverage limits, and bolstering the volume and authority of our law enforcement officers and judicial system would qualify as a meaningful structure. Executing it efficiently and effectively would comprise a meaningful effort. Taking these steps should be one of our industry’s principal goals.
Truth or Consequences
This installment, and frankly this entire series, asks a single, multiple-choice question: Which of the following should our umbrella organizations be directing their energies to protecting and serving:
- Several hundred Mom-and-Pop charter operators, in constant violation of regulatory requirements, who do not even belong to them?
- Gambling casinos, theme parks and the squadron of destinations our industry serves?
- Our vehicle manufacturers, suppliers and the overwhelming share of our operating companies that help support these organizations, and their disproportionate share of our vehicles, and who comply with regulations, already embrace reasonable fatigue management practices, and whose efforts drive the engine of our industry, and promote its increasingly-needed presence and growth in a nation exploding in population and decreasing in income?
We all know what the core of the problem is. And we should be ashamed if we do not know the things needed to address it. It is time to stop tossing fatigue management sugar plums to those who don’t need them, time to create an effective structure to stop the carnage, and time to stop the innocent from paying the costs incurred by the guilty.
The last few installments in this series will contain numerous other solutions, including a basketful of strategies to help our seemingly hapless OEMs and suppliers from jumping into the economic abyss like so many Lemmings each time some hapless driver dozes off at the wheel, often because of the reckless disregard of his or her company’s owner for its passengers, that owner’s malicious disregard for safety regulations, and the deficiencies in our regulatory structure that allow even those in compliance to commit legally-allowable atrocities. But there is little point in addressing a problem of this magnitude by nibbling away its outer edges, or sharing the answers with those who already know and practice them. We must do the things now missing that can hold the laggards and cheaters accountable. In the meantime, at least, the last few installments of this series should help minimize the peripheral damage to those rarely responsible for the mayhem.