Big jump in serious bus crashes: 'It's scary out there.'
The number of serious bus crashes rose by 40 last year and unions claim some drivers are quitting because they can't handle the long hours or the fear of killing someone.
Vice president of the Auckland Tramways Union Manoj Kumar is still so traumatised by a fatal crash almost 12 months ago, he may never return to bus driving.
He hasn't taken the wheel of a bus since a car ploughed into his double decker last July, leaving the driver and his young son dead, and badly injuring the man's 2-year-old daughter.
According to figures from the Ministry of Transport (MOT), the accident was among 161 serious bus crashes resulting in casualties last year, 40 more than in 2016.
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Eleven people died and a further 274 people – passengers, pedestrians, and people in other vehicles - were injured, 64 of them severely.
Auckland had the the greatest number of serious crashes (58), followed by Wellington (25), Canterbury (20), and Otago (16).
On top of that, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) recorded just over 500 non-injury bus crashes, up almost 80 on the previous year. But it says the true figure could be higher because non-fatal crashes are under-reported.
Unions and bus companies disagree over whether driver fatigue is contributing to more crashes.
Transport Minister Phil Twyford is so concerned about the crash rate he has asked officials for information on possible causes, and has already commissioned a report into whether the public transport tendering system is forcing down wages and worsening drivers' employment conditions.
Since 2012, severe bus crash injuries have more than doubled and fatalities have increased five-fold, but MOT acting mobility and safety manager Joanna Heard says the numbers are too small to indicate any trends.
Many factors contributed to the rise in crashes with increased vehicle numbers being a key one, and bus safety would be part of a new road safety strategy.
She says bus transport is still very safe, and passengers in cars and vans are seven times more likely than bus passengers to be killed or injured in a crash for the same time spent travelling.
It's scary out there
That's little comfort to Kumar who is still having counselling to help him come to terms with the crash. He says police told him occurred when the driver of the car was distracted by a dog in the back seat.
Despite a year working as a classroom-based driver trainer, and great support from company management, Kumar remains nervous about returning to regular shifts, and even driving a car is nerve-wracking.
"It's a little bit scary at the moment, that's why I told [the company] that I'm ready to take office jobs or other jobs because I'm not confident to drive."
Other bus drivers spoken to asked not to be named for fear of jeopardising their employment.
An Auckland driver who regularly puts in 60 hour weeks says the job is exhausting. "You're constantly yawning, constantly tired. I can be sitting at the lights and my eyes want to close, but you have to focus."
A long haul bus driver says impatient motorists are a nightmare – speeding, passing in dangerous places and running red lights.
"It's quite a frightening place to be a lot of the time. People pull out thinking I'm slow, not realising it takes a long time to stop when you're fully loaded."
An urban bus driver with 50 years heavy vehicle experience says companies exacerbated the stress of higher traffic volumes by "driving the drivers too hard."
New recruits might only get two weeks' training – sometimes only a couple of days if they had prior experience – and it wasn't enough.
The fatigue factor
First Union and the Tramways Union represent almost 2200 bus drivers nationally, and Kumar supports their push to change legislation which currently allows bus drivers to work up to 5.5 hours without a break.
"It's unacceptable and impractical, we're driving passengers; lives are involved. The rule was made for truckies who can stop anywhere they want to."
About 40 per of the 65 drivers who responded to a recent First Union online survey said they had been involved in a bus accident in the past year where they had hit someone or something.
One third blamed heavy traffic and 70 per cent put accidents down to fatigue, long hours, insufficient rest, pressure to take extra shifts, and stress.
Union assistant general secretary Louisa Jones says companies with better working conditions have lower accident rates.
"If somebody is working 45 hours a week driving a bus and having two days off, they're going to be safer than somebody working 60 hours and having only one day off. "
The pedestrian factor
A South Auckland bus driver says they regularly contend with drunk, drugged or mentally impaired pedestrians who "play chicken," running out into the road to stop buses.
Wellington driver Paul Hatfield's fear of hitting an inattentive pedestrian is his main reason for taking redundancy.
"About six weeks ago the number of near misses crept up, so I was having upwards of 10 to 12 in an eight-hour shift.
"It's got to the stage where I don't want the final one to occur that's going to either kill or maim somebody."
Tramways Union general secretary Kevin O'Sullivan says Hatfield is not alone and the risk is real.
"They just want to get out [of the job] before they kill someone. Every trip you do through town, there's people running out in front of you without looking, or on their phone, or listening to music. It's not just now and then, it happens constantly."
Former NZ Bus director Tim Brown was one of those pedestrians.
Forgetting a previously one-way Wellington street had become two way, he admits he failed to look properly and was run over by one of his company's buses just a short distance from where a woman jogger was killed by a bus a year earlier.
Six years on, his 35 broken bones have healed and his only lasting injury is partial loss of vision in one eye.
He says pedestrians should take more care, but city planners have a lot to answer for because they have made accessibility a higher priority than pedestrian safety, with street designs that mean "one fall and you're are under a moving vehicle."
Argument over the fatigue factor
New Zealand Bus and Coach Association chief executive Barry Kidd says bus numbers have risen significantly, with 1439 new buses registered in the last three years.
But the industry is closely monitored and he does not accept there is a major issue with fatigue.
"I don't think it bears much scrutiny, but at the bottom end of the market there's always people cutting corners."
Kidd says bus companies now routinely use GPS data to monitor speeding, heavy braking or acceleration to improve driving standards.
New technology that scans drivers' faces and alerts them when it detects signs of tiredness is being trialled here.
Ritchies Transport, which employs about 1400 drivers, has the scanning technology on its night coaches and director Andrew Ritchie says fatigue is not a problem if it's properly managed.
In the past eight months, he estimates Ritchies' buses were involved in between eight and 12 crashes in the southern lakes area, all caused by other motorists.
NZTA is investigating a First Union complaint that Go Bus rosters breached the working hours rule in Auckland, which Go Bus chief financial officer Nigel Piper denies.
He says their accident rate has not changed when compared with kilometres travelled, but has declined to release the figures on the grounds they are commercially sensitive.
He puts the unions' stance down to "fairly long and acrimonious [pay] negotiations."
NZ Bus says its safety focus has reduced accidents and it is "not opposed to" the union efforts to change work time rules, provided they are applied across the industry.
Auckland Transport bus services manager Darek Koper says that since last July there have been more than 40 accidents where buses had hit vehicles, objects or people.
He says accident reporting requirements will be much more rigorous once all bus services come under new contracts from October, and it will be easier to identify trends by comparing the number of accidents to kilometres travelled.
Koper says efforts to lower the bus accident rate include a campaign to prevent red light running, priority lanes separating buses from general traffic, and new technology to monitor driver fatigue and performance.