More than three years since the Croydon tram crash saw ‘driver fatigue’ raised as a possible cause of the disaster, now bus drivers are threatening strike action over concerns for the safety of their passengers and themselves. RORY KELLY reports
London Bus drivers may go on strike due to the “chronic fatigue” some are suffering under demanding work schedules.
Drivers’ union Unite are to ballot their 20,000 members for a possible strike to highlight the growing concerns, while calling for better breaks and ensuring that drivers finish their shifts on time.
The concerns expressed by bus drivers about in-work exhaustion will be familiar to public transport passengers in Croydon, following the tram crash at Sandilands in November 2016, in which seven people died and 62 were injured. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch suggested that a likely cause of the crash was that the tram driver fell asleep at the controls.
The 174-page RAIB report explained how the driver most likely failed to apply the breaks due to “a temporary loss of awareness of the driving task during a period of low workload, which possibly caused him to micro-sleep”. It is a conclusion which also informed the Crown Prosecution Service when, last year, it decided not to press any charges against the driver.
Fatigue was “by far the most likely explanation of what happened”, the CPS said at that time, adding, “There was no compelling evidence that the driver had done anything which he ought to have known could adversely affect his concentration or make him susceptible to falling asleep.”
It is this which makes recent research into similar levels of fatigue among bus drivers disturbing, as they try to cope with often gruelling work patterns.
A study conducted at Loughborough University found that 17 per cent – almost 1 in 5 – of bus drivers reported falling asleep at the wheel at least once in the past 12 months.
They also found that 21 per cent of the 1,353 drivers surveyed said that they had “to fight sleepiness” at least two to three times a week.
Most disturbingly of all, 36 per cent – more than 1 in 3 – said that their fatigue had led to a “close call” within the past year.
According to Unite, this means that drivers “are permanently fatigued and at risk of being a danger to other road users, bus passengers and themselves”.
Transport for London has issued a statement saying that they are looking into the matter, which requires “collaborative action” to address this “vital issue”.
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It’s not just bus drivers and passengers that should be concerned about driver fatigue. Recent data show that TfL buses are involved in increasing numbers of deaths and serious injuries affecting pedestrians and cyclists.
I say “recent”.
Caroline Pidgeon has hauled TfL over the coals over their failure to provide figures more up to date than the first 3 months of 2019. She’s just been told officially that “Transport for London (TfL) is committed to publishing timely, accurate data relating to its bus safety performance. In 2019 there were some delays to this, for which TfL apologises. The delays were due to changes being made to systems that are designed to upgrade the production of reports and improve their timeliness and accuracy in the long term.
The latest data for Q2 and Q3 2019 will be published by the end of January.”
I do wonder if the problem of driver fatigue is more complex than just demanding work schedules.
Not for a second do I mean to belittle the impact of over ambitious shift patterns. No doubt this is the main factor as companies tend to squeeze the work force to as fewer people as they can manage to get away with. And when you mix this with shift patterns and getting behind the controls of a tram or bus, it is a recipe for disaster.
However, is it not the case that if your shift were to start at 5 am the next morning, there is a limit to just how early it is possible to get to sleep the night before?
Maybe we need to look at making later start times for timetables? Perhaps base it upon passenger usage for the super early journies? Is there a chance that as users we are demanding a bit too much from the people that drive these vehicles?
I might be wrong – but worth a debate.