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Friday, Nov. 2, 2012

Spate of tour bus accidents on expressways to prompt greater oversight


The transport ministry will strengthen its oversight of expressway tour buses from fiscal 2013 in light of a series of recent accidents, including one in which seven passengers were killed six months ago possibly because the driver passed out due to fatigue.

News photo
Smashup: A tour bus that collided with a truck lies on the Kanetsu Expressway in Gunma Prefecture in late April. KYODO

Competition to cut fares is intensifying among operators.

Since deregulation in 2000, the number of such vehicles nearly doubled to 4,492 in fiscal 2010, compared with 2,336 in fiscal 1999. In 2010, an estimated 6 million people used the buses, up sharply from 23,000 in 2004.

In February 2007, one person died and 26 were injured in an accident involving a ski tour bus in Suita, Osaka Prefecture. According to police, the driver fell asleep at the wheel due to overwork.

It is believed some travel agencies choose bus tour operators on the basis of profitability rather than safety. The bus involved in the Suita accident was being used for such a tour.

As part of its administrative evaluations, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry in September 2010 advised the transport ministry to improve tour bus safety.

In late April, however, a bus crashed into a wall on the Kanetsu Expressway in Gunma Prefecture, killing seven passengers and injuring nearly 40 others. Police again blamed the accident on an overworked driver dozing at the wheel.

Subsequent inspections by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry found that more than 80 percent of tour bus operators were in violation of safety regulations, suggesting little progress has been made — after the Suita accident in 2007, 81 percent of the tour bus operators examined by the ministry were found to be violating safety rules.

In July, the ministry introduced new safety standards that in principle prohibit night tour bus drivers from driving more than 400 km and 10 hours on a single trip.

On Aug. 2, however, a tour bus rear-ended a truck on the Tohoku Expressway in Miyagi Prefecture, injuring about 30 people. The company that owned the bus was subsequently found to have failed to enforce the maximum driving hour rules.

In its inspection, the ministry confirmed violations in the operations of 73 of 322 buses — more than 20 percent.

The Kanetsu Expressway crash in April prompted the ministry to seek a bigger budget for the next fiscal year to establish a new section that would check whether the operators of tour buses and other vehicles, including cabs and trucks, are following safety standards.

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