POLITICO: By BURGESS EVERETT
A union leader is calling for a re-examination of driver fatigue regulations after a bus driver was sentenced to jail time for a crash that killed four bus riders.
Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley said Friday that the bus industry is facing a crisis similar to what regional airlines faced leading up to the Colgan Airlines crash of 2009. That was the last fatal commercial airplane crash in the United States and one that highlighted stressful working conditions for pilots. Passenger airlines will now see more stringent regulations in 2014 crafted in response.
Hanley said it’s time to do the same for the bus industry, which has seen a deadly procession of fatal crashes in recent years, the most recent of which killed nine in Oregon in December.
On Wednesday, a driver for Sky Express was sentenced to six years in prison after he crashed a bus in Virginia during a trip between North Carolina and Virginia. He admitted to falling asleep during the trip, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Hanley said that until Congress and the Department of Transportation take another look at bus driver fatigue, crashes will continue because of low wages that precipitate long working hours, which go hand-in-hand to create an unsafe environment.
“The economics of the bus industry are such that even if you have more stringent regulations on hours of service than you do, you will never control the hours that bus drivers work unless you have ankle bracelets on them,” Hanley said.
Still, Hanley believes Washington needs to start with more attention to overworked drivers.
“You must have a regulatory scheme to control this or more people will die,” he predicted.
Current hours-of-service rules allow 15 hours of duty a day but only 10 hours behind the wheel followed by eight hours off duty.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has indicated it's possible under regulations for a driver’s working hours to disrupt his or her natural sleep rhythms, “resulting in sleep truncation and associated impaired performance.” A recent FMCSA study of 84 drivers found that drivers fatigue as the work week drags on, though not to a point of alarm.
“Participants reported an increased level of fatigue and sleepiness at the end of a duty period relative to the beginning,” the report said, concluding that “motorcoach drivers appear to effectively balance the demands of work, family, and community to sustain adequate amounts of sleep.”
A DOT spokesman declined to say whether Congress should step in to apply tougher rest rules to bus drivers. But the department has taken a renewed focus on bad actors in the industry by increasing inspections, shutting down 28 companies last year and initiating an investigation into MegaBus after fatal crashes in Illinois.
Congress too made progress in last year’s transportation bill, enacting seatbelt requirements and mandating electronic logging devices on buses.
Those provisions came after years of congressional infighting and were considered a milestone compromise among Senate Commerce Committee senators of both parties.
Hanley said it’s not enough. He is looking to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to again mount an effort to pass a bill to apply the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — which established overtime rules and workweek hour standards — to private-sector bus drivers. That bill died in committee last year.
“Bus drivers all over this country are forced [into] working conditions that are in part caused by the lack of fair labor standards,” Hanley said. The union leader believes the sentencing of the bus driver behind the wheel of the fatal accident is evidence that Washington continues to miss that point.
“Now a man is going to rot in jail,” he said. “All the people in Congress, the federal government and particularly the bus industry should share his cell.”
Peter Pantuso, the president of the American Bus Association, said “it’s a shame the position the ATU has taken.” He argued that the focus should stay on cracking down on bad actors and making sure they don’t crop up elsewhere, rather than revisiting past labor fights.
Pantuso said the FMCSA and DOT have made good headway on unsafe carriers and that the union would best serve its members by pushing for more enforcement and more DOT employees dedicated to bus inspections, regulation and shutting down dangerous companies.
“They’re definitely moving in the right direction. Could they do more? Absolutely,” Pantuso said of DOT. “Part of it is an issue of resources.”