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Asleep at the Wheel: How Deregulation of the Bus Industry Could Get You Killed

Bus accidents kill about 50 and injure almost 1,000 other innocent passengers every year—and the biggest reason is driver fatigue.

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While no management can legally require drivers to violate federal hours-of-service regulations, which requires 8 hours of rest for every 10 hours of driving, it does happen. Sometimes they get caught; more often not.

Impossible to Organize

Drivers could, of course, improve their lot and advance safety by joining a union. But small mom-and-pop businesses such as these have always defied organization.

ATU continues to represent workers at traditional OTR providers such as Greyhound and Peter Pan, as well as Greyhound’s own low-cost carrier, Bolt Bus. The Teamsters represent some MegaBus workers. Otherwise, virtually all other curbside operators are non-union.

Certainly, this was one of the goals of deregulation. The effect on this once-proud industry has been devastating. Non-union OTR drivers have been forced into the growing underclass of the American workforce.

Deregulation has had the desired effect on unionized operators as well. Greyhound, which has struggled to remain profitable since the 1980s, has abandoned many rural communities, where many people once depended on Greyhound as their only means to travel outside their area.

Deregulation has also made it much more difficult for our drivers to negotiate decent contracts. Adequate health insurance and retirement plans, not to mention pensions, are becoming a thing of the past.

Fatigue Causes Accidents

It’s not hard to see how these practices, the fruits of deregulation, lead to danger for drivers and passengers. With the spring and summer travel season about to kick into high gear, fixing these problems becomes more urgent.

While last year’s sting operations were needed, and did take some buses and drivers off the road, it’s just impossible for our underfunded state and federal agencies to ferret out very many of the outlaw operators. Discount interstate bus companies have operated below the radar of law enforcement for years, with little fear of detection.

And last year’s crackdown did nothing to address the real cause of these accidents, driver fatigue.

The National Transportation Safety Board estimates that 36 percent of bus crash fatalities over the past decade have been due to driver fatigue. It is the No. 1 cause of fatal accidents, far above road conditions (2 percent) or inattention (6 percent). The Board has put addressing driver fatigue on its “Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements.” See the ATU’s report on intercity bus accidents,  Sudden Death Overtime .

Driver fatigue isn’t limited only to shoddy, curbside operations. Unregulated, it has spread like a disease throughout hundreds of intercity bus companies that get away with paying their drivers criminally low wages – some starting as low as $14.00 per hour and a top rate of $23.00 - forcing them to work around the clock to make ends meet.

Congressional Action

Bus safety has gotten the attention of Congress, which is considering the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act. The bill would mandate seat belts, stronger bus windows and roofs, and stability-enhancing technology to prevent rollovers.

While well-intentioned, the legislation does nothing to stop drivers from getting behind the wheel with little or no sleep. If the driver of a 40,000-pound vehicle traveling at highway speeds falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into a bridge or flips into a ditch, the lives of passengers will be in grave danger even if they are strapped into a vehicle as strong as a tank.

Sweatshops on Wheels

Congress and the administration need to acknowledge that through deregulation, the government has created a framework for the bus industry to operate sweatshops on wheels. They can begin to clean up the intercity bus industry by lifting the overtime-pay exemption so drivers are fairly compensated for working past 40 hours. They will be less inclined to work second jobs and push their bodies beyond safe limits. The Driver Fatigue Prevention Act, sponsored by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, would repeal the exemption.

 
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