Caroline Pidgeon: London must tackle the problem of bus driver fatigue

Caroline Pidgeon: London must tackle the problem of bus driver fatigue

Bus drivers in London might soon be going on strike. The Unite union has plans to ballot its members about taking industrial action over the issue of fatigue facing its drivers. It will be a consultative ballot and, if members endorse it, strikes could follow later this year – unless, of course, something is done to ensure the problem is resolved. “London bus drivers have had enough,” Unite’s regional officer John Murphy has been reported as saying. “They are permanently fatigued and at risk of being a danger to other road users, bus passengers and themselves.”

Cynical members of the travelling public might be thinking that, once again, a union is championing better terms and conditions for its members and pushing things a bit too far. Surely not every working condition issue in the transport industry should be presented as one that is critical for public safety? They should think again. Being frequently tired is a reality for many bus drivers. It is a widespread problem that cannot be ignored.

The evidence is there, in black and white. Last summer, significant research into the problem was published. Undertaken by Loughborough University’s transport safety research centre in collaboration with the Swedish national road and transport research institute, it was funded by Transport for London. Its findings were alarming.

An on-road study focusing on a small group of drivers on a live bus route revealed that they frequently have to fight to stay awake while behind the wheel of bus. Surveys were completed by 1,353 London bus drivers working for 10 bus service operating companies. Of these, 42 per cent said they occasionally have to fight sleepiness, with over 13 per cent saying this was a problem two to three times a week. Over seven per cent said it was a problem for them four or more times a week. And, shockingly, one in six stated that they had actually fallen asleep when behind the wheel of a bus during the previous 12 months.

It is deeply worrying and frightening that bus drivers are falling asleep while driving and in some cases doing so frequently. A London Assembly transport committee report found that between 2015 and 2017, 25 people killed by buses in London and a further 12,000 injured. The report, called Driven to Distraction, is well worth returning to. (A Financial Times summary of it is here. We also know that there were at least 71 people hit by London buses at pedestrian crossings between January 2016 and November 2018, as reported by the Evening Standard.

The connection between bus driver fatigue and collisions is fully recognised by bus drivers themselves: five per cent told the Loughborough University researchers they had been involved in a road collision at least once in the previous twelve months due to fatigue, and 36 per cent one said it had brought about a close call. Tired drivers are quite simply dangerous drivers – dangerous to themselves, to bus passengers and to every other road user, especially pedestrians and cyclists.

What is being done to address these safety concerns? The Mayor’s transport strategy has the objective of reaching zero deaths and road collisions on its transport network by 2041, so there must be a real urgency in addressing the issue. To be fair, some steps are beginning to be taken. Following the publication of the Loughborough University research, a number of commitments were made by TfL. They include:

  • New bus operator contracts will require the company to have rigorous fatigue risk management systems. This should come into effect this year.
  • All managers in bus garages will have to undertake fatigue awareness training.
  • TfL is making £500,000 available to help operators undertake further work to establish the most effective interventions to reduce fatigue
  • All rosters are being reviewed by operators to ensure they are following best practice to reduce the risk of fatigue.

These are welcome measures, but the challenge is how quickly they are adopted and how effectively they are implemented. And they are only the start of what needs to be done.

The reasons bus drivers are frequently tired are complex, but nearly always they are part and parcel of the working conditions they face. Alternating shifts can hamper regular sleep patterns.  Many drivers have limited access to adequate rest facilities during their breaks. There can be high levels of stress at work – dealing with London traffic, radio control messages regularly being sent to them, and having to handle sometimes rude and aggressive passengers. Even before getting behind the wheel, many have travelled long distances to get to their depot, perhaps by car. The pay levels facing bus drivers can also mean that some feel unable to turn down last-minute overtime opportunities.

We should also recognise that tiredness is a wider transport issue. We know it has been an issue facing tram drivers. It also affects many taxi and private hire drivers – incredibly, there is no  statutory limit on the number of hours for drivers in these industries. I am at present pushing the Mayor to ensure that research is now carried out into the levels of fatigue facing drivers in this industry.

If we want safer roads for everyone, we need to understand why many kinds of driver are so often dangerously tired when at work. The working practices that contribute to this must quickly become as outdated as those in factories in the age of Dickens.

Caroline Pidgeon is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member. Follow her on Twitter. Photograph by Omar Jan.

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