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Thursday, May 10, 2012
A tour bus tragedy
None of the passengers who boarded a chartered tour bus at 10 p.m., April 28, at JT Kanazawa Station imagined the tragedy that lay ahead. The bus, bound for Tokyo Disneyland Resort (TDR) in Chiba Prefecture, crashed into a soundproofing wall on the Kanetsu Expressway in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, around 4:40 a.m. the next day, killing seven passengers and injuring 38 others, three of them critically, plus the bus driver. The wall ripped through most of the length of the bus.
The bus did not have a codriver. The police and the transport ministry should carry out a thorough investigation to find out whether there were problems with tour planning and the driver's working conditions. Clearly a factor behind the accident is cutthroat competition following deregulation. The government needs to revise regulations with the aim of preventing future accidents.
The driver, arrested by the Gunma prefectural police, said he was asleep at the wheel. There was no evidence that he had applied the brake. The bus's speedometer reportedly indicated 92 kph after becoming inoperative. It is suspected that the driver was hired on a day-to-day basis in violation of the road transport law.
Following deregulation in 2000, firms engaged in the chartered bus business do not need to get licenses. In 2010, more than 6 million people used chartered tour buses on expressways.
Bus firms are tempted to force tough working conditions on drivers to cut costs. The one-way fare from Kanazawa to TDR for the bus involved in the accident was ¥3,500 — about half the fare of a bus running on a regular basis. One way of cutting costs is to eliminate a codriver. In some cases, drivers are forced to repeat long-distance drives for more than a week. A 2009 survey of chartered bus drivers by the internal affairs ministry showed that about 90 percent had experienced drowsiness while driving.
The transport ministry allows a driver to drive up to 670 km a day — the distance between Tokyo and Okayama. It should consider shortening this distance. (The distance between Kanazawa and TDR is about 540 km.) Firms organizing tours using chartered buses on expressways are not subject to the road transport law.
There is a view that a gap between the soundproofing wall and a guardrail in front of it, and the position of the wall (which was set up further inside the expressway than the guardrail) contributed to the severity of the accident. The government should immediately check the situations on all expressways.