While the Tracy Morgan crash has attracted national attention because it involves a well-known comedian, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report confirms what we already know: we have a driver fatigue crisis.
Understandably, Morgan’s celebrity gave this particular story and the NTSB’s findings significant national attention. However, incidents like this occur far more often than they should, and rarely get the attention they deserve. Nearly 4,000 people lose their lives each year in crashes involving large trucks, and sadly, tired drivers are routinely at the center of investigations. But as Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union points out, fatigue doesn’t just plague the trucking industry. It’s a systemic problem that runs rampant in the motorcoach sector as well.
The facts are stark. Bus drivers face pressure to forgo needed breaks and drive excessive hours in order to complete trips in tight time frames and meet employer demands. This pressure is exacerbated by low wages, forcing drivers to choose between proper rest and a paycheck. As Hanley explains, “Bus drivers earning low wages for unscrupulous operators are being forced to work second jobs to make ends meet, creating a situation in which many drivers are climbing into the driver’s seat sleep deprived.” It’s true: an NTSB survey revealed that some drivers in this industry hold multiple jobs to earn adequate income. How can we expect motorcoach drivers to get adequate rest if they’re working around the clock?
The most heart-wrenching fact of all is that driver fatigue is preventable, but as is so often the case in Washington, common-sense policies that can stop these tragedies are stymied by inaction and political dysfunction.
Unlike 85 percent of the American workforce, bus drivers are exempt from the overtime provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), meaning drivers are not guaranteed time-and-a-half pay for the additional hours they work past 40 hours per week. The correlation between low pay and fatigue is undeniable: studies show that increasing driver base pay by only 10 percent leads to a significantly lower probability of a crash.
The good news is we can improve the standard of living for bus drivers by closing the loophole that prevents them from earning overtime pay. Unfortunately, the policies that don’t allow overtime protections in the motorcoach industry only incentivize the creation of cut-throat operators whose profit motives often trump quality and safe service. This must stop.
The sweatshops-on-wheels business model that has become so prevalent in this industry will continue to force tired bus drivers to work excessive hours, putting the traveling public and drivers at risk.