Asleep at the Wheel
Fifteen people were killed in March 2011 when a bus bound for casinos crashed in the Bronx on Interstate 95. The bus slid on its side and the top was peeled off like a tin can when it hit a traffic pole. Some first responders were so overwhelmed by the gruesome sight that they required counseling.
Two months later a tour bus overturned in central Virginia, killing four and injuring dozens. No other vehicles were involved.
These are just two examples of the escalating number of intercity bus accidents now plaguing our highways. Bus accidents kill about 50 and injure almost 1,000 other innocent passengers every year—and the biggest reason is driver fatigue.
Federal and state regulatory agencies responded last year by launching police sting operations to perform safety checks on intercity buses.
Bus travel used to be one of the safest and least stressful modes of transportation in America.
To find the answer you have to go back to 1982. Ronald Reagan deregulated the intercity bus industry, allowing just about anyone who owned a motor coach to form a bus company.
The industry was very different prior to deregulation. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) represented 20,000 Greyhound and Continental Trailways workers in the early ’80s. Today, after 30 years of deregulation, Greyhound has merged with Trailways and employs just 3,500.
The company now competes with a couple of big “over-the-road” (OTR) providers and 4,000 smaller “curbside” bus operators. Curbside operators usually own no more than three or four buses and pick up riders on city streets rather than at bus stations.
Obviously, deregulation has succeeded in bringing competition to the OTR industry. But far from improving service, many if not most curbside operators have increased their profits by neglecting needed maintenance and ignoring safety and accessibility regulations.
As a result, these irresponsible carriers take advantage of low-income passengers who unwittingly board their dangerous vehicles because they can’t afford anything else.
Shameful employment practices have also become the norm, practices that threaten the lives of passengers and ensure that these employees remain among the ranks of the working poor.
Studies show that driving a bus is one of the most stressful occupations anyone can have. These drivers must transport precious human cargo in long, 20-ton machines for many hours over interstate highways and narrow city streets while avoiding hazards, keeping the peace, and meeting the needs of any passenger who walks through their doors.
But the wages of most of these drivers are abysmally low. The website Glassdoor.com pegs the top wage of Coach USA drivers at just $29,000 per year. The low wages often force workers to take a second job during their off hours—hours in which they should be resting before their next run.
In order to save even more money, discount operators encourage or coerce their drivers to work overtime, thus avoiding the need to hire enough drivers to actually do the work.
Adding insult to injury, intercity bus providers don’t pay overtime. They don’t have to. That’s right—a little-known provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act exempts them from paying overtime after 40 hours a week. Some drivers may work as many as 100 hours a week—all at the same rate.
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.
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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.
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.
Government also needs to better regulate the OTR bus industry, which would discourage these fly-by-night operations with one or two drivers from ever entering the industry, and help drivers have a stronger, more unified voice.
Extending these protections to intercity bus drivers is the safe thing to do for drivers and passengers alike. We don’t want another Bronx or Virginia accident on our highways.
Larry Hanley is president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.