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In March 2011, a tour bus in the Bronx, N.Y., overturned at high speed on Interstate 95 at 5:30 a.m., killing 15 people and injuring dozens more. The ensuing investigation found the driver, Ophadell Williams, suffered from fatigue because he had little sleep over the course of three days except for naps he took on the bus while passengers were inside the Mohegan Sun casino. Williams was well within his federally regulated hours of service (HOS).
Countless stories like the Bronx accident exist in the motorcoach industry, a historically safe mode of transportation that has taken a pretty hard hit of late because of several well-publicized accidents over the last few years. One major cause of these accidents is driver fatigue.
The National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) investigated 16 fatal motorcoach crashes between June 1998 and January 2008 and found driver fatigue was responsible for a staggering 36% of the fatalities occurring in the crashes investigated and was the number one cause of fatal accidents, far above road conditions (2%) and inattention (6%).
“If you look at the cause of many of these accidents over the years, they are caused by driver error, and often, the major contributing factor is fatigue,” says United Motorcoach Association (UMA) President/CEO Victor Parra.
While the NTSB, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), politicians and other federal agencies have focused on the HOS rule as a way to combat driver fatigue, many industry experts feel the problem could be more properly addressed through risk management and proper training for owners, drivers and their families.
Aside from discussing the causes and risks of driver fatigue and what can be done by the industry to help improve safety, METRO Magazine also conducted an informal, anonymous survey of motorcoach companies around the nation to see, among other things, how many operations have had accidents caused by driver fatigue, how much training they provide their drivers and what they are doing to manage their risks.
Driving while fatigued
Simply put, a driver of any type of vehicle, whether it’s a personal automobile, train or motorcoach, is at risk to suffer from fatigue.
The easiest way to combat fatigue, of course, is getting the proper amount of rest — between seven to nine hours of restful uninterrupted sleep for adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Without sufficient sleep, most aspects of a driver’s performance suffers, including their judgment, decision-making, memory, reaction time and concentration. If a driver is extremely tired, fatigue can cause uncontrolled and involuntary shutdown of the brain. In other words, they can fall asleep.
“The one thing we know about fatigue for sure is that it’s both cumulative and subversive,” explains Jack Burkert, a retired bus safety advisor. “It will sneak up on somebody and cloud his or her judgment long before the individual can perceive the problem, which is the same as alcohol and driving.”
In his book, “Motor Fleet Safety, Standards and Practices,” Burkert explains driver fatigue is commonly perceived as having few consequences unless the driver actually falls asleep, which he says is simply not true because it’s a gradual process that slowly impairs the driver’s ability to perceive, react and avoid problems.
“Falling asleep is just the final step,” he says. “But up to that point, drivers go through several stages of possibly preventing problems and ignore them because they don’t know they are happening.”
According Lancer Insurance, which has studied and provided training on driver fatigue for more than 10 years, specific warning signals of fatigue, both on and off the road, include:
- Loss of concentration and attention, or the driver is easily distracted.
- Increased desire to sleep.
- Rapid loss of short-term capability.
- Slowed speed of eye movement (staring).
- Increased difficulty to visually focus or keep eyes open.
- Head nodding and/or head shaking to stay awake.
- Microsleep events averaging five seconds to six seconds.
- Frequent bad moods or behavior.
“If you’re not on a regular work and sleep schedule pattern, you will be constantly exhausted,” says Bob Crescenzo, VP, Lancer Insurance. “When you’re tired, you can be driving one hour and run off the road.”