Several shocking commercial bus accidents over the past few months have put the spotlight on federal regulations and industry practices in both the motor coach and commercial trucking industries. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), studies show that between 13 and 31 percent of commercial bus and trucking accidents are caused by driver fatigue -- and the industries' economic models probably contribute directly to the problem.
Bus and trucking companies work to strict schedules, and those schedules often require overnight driving. According to sleep scientists, even experienced drivers with no other medical issues will always find it a challenge to stay awake on overnight runs -- especially when driving between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. when the body's natural rhythms are urging us to sleep.
Added to that is a high rate of obesity and sleep apnea among commercial bus and truck drivers. Those medical issues can make it even harder for drivers to remain awake and alert in challenging conditions, according to transportation and public safety consultant Darrel Drobnich, who is an expert on driver fatigue.
"No matter how much sleep you have had, no matter how young you are, that time of day is extremely dangerous to drive a motor vehicle," he explains.
Sleep scientists, labor leaders and safety advocates say that the motor coach and trucking industry policies result in far too many drivers on the road with too little rest
Federal regulations mandate a certain amount of rest for commercial drivers, although the rules vary between commercial truck drivers, bus drivers and others. For example, commercial truckers with Class A licenses are permitted to drive no longer than 11 hours before they must take a 10-hour break. The 11-hour driving period can be extended slightly if the driver takes off-duty breaks within the shift rather than driving straight through, but they can only be on duty for a total of 14 hours before they must go off duty.
Bus drivers are only allowed to drive for 10 hours before they must go off duty for 8 hours, but taking breaks can extend the total amount of time they are on duty. Even if their on-duty time isn't extended, bus drivers can drive for 10 hours, take 8 hours off, and then drive for another 10 hours -- meaning they can legally work two full 10-hour shifts in only 28 hours.
"The consequence is an entire industry populated by people not getting enough sleep," said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents commercial bus drivers.
Of course, challenging schedules and tight profit margins do encourage some companies and drivers to ignore the rules. After bus or trucking accidents, it is often discovered that drivers were on the road for far longer than was legal -- sometimes using false log books to deflect scrutiny.
The NTSB is urging the government to replace paper log books with electronic devices that keep track of how many hours drivers are actually on the road. Other proposals include mandating more frequent rest stops during shifts or even requiring a second driver in every truck.