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Bus driver fatigue leaves hundreds dead

Employees are under pressure to sleep less and speed more
July 12,2017
이미지뷰
Above: Black box footage of the M5532 bus at the time of the accident on Sunday shows its impact into a Kia K5. Below left: The bus driver, who was driving with only one hand before the accident, seizes the wheel with both hands at the moment of the crash. Below right: Passengers on the bus at the time of the accident, some hitting their heads against the seats in front of them. [SEOCHO POLICE PRECINCT]
Police on Tuesday raided the Osan Transportation Company, which hired the bus driver who fell asleep on Sunday and crashed into seven other vehicles, killing two and injuring 16, to see if the company violated laws regarding rest time.

The driver, a 51-year-old surnamed Kim, was behind the wheel for 21 hours, though not all in one sitting, across his shifts from Saturday to Sunday. He drives the M5532, which travels daily between Osan, Gyeonggi and Sadang Station, southern Seoul.

Kim told police he dozed off while driving.

“I think I fell asleep at the time because I was fatigued from work,” Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo over the phone.

Bus drivers in Korea are required to rest at least 15 minutes for every two hours of driving, according to the Passenger Transport Service Act.

“We stick to the rules and guarantee rest times for our drivers,” said an employee of Osan Transportation Company.

Kim said he typically works two days on and takes one day off. On Saturday, his first shift began at 5:00 a.m. and his last shift ended at 11:40 p.m. He had driven a total of 15 hours that day. He was back the next morning at 7:15 a.m.

“I had five hours of sleep when I went back to work on Sunday,” he said.

By the time of the accident on Sunday, at around 2:40 p.m., Kim had worked more than 21 hours in two days.

The International Labor Organization says drivers should not work over nine hours per day. The European Union also limits driving hours to nine per day and to 56 per week. But Kim is not alone.

“We need an average of 2.23 drivers per bus to run them under normal schedules,” said an employee of Gyeonggi Bus. “But right now we have only 1.7 drivers per bus.”

This shortage creates pressure for drivers to work longer hours. And given the sheer size of the system itself - there are 163 bus lines connecting regions in Seoul to Gyeonggi, and 2,132 buses run on these lines - this in turn creates ample opportunity for fatal accidents.

“I couldn’t find time to grab lunch today,” said a 63-year-old surnamed Yang who was hired by the Osan Transportation Company. “My first meal of the day will be dinner.”

According to the Catholic University of Korea’s social health research institute in 2015, 70.1 percent of bus drivers surveyed in Gyeonggi said they drive more than 15 hours a day. Among them, 15 percent said they drive more than 18 hours a day.

The labor shortage also often means bus drivers speed during driving.

“We speed in order to make sure the buses get to stations on time,” said another driver of M5532, a 64-year-old surnamed Kim.

On Monday, when the reporter boarded an M5532 bus going from Osan to Seoul, Kim drove at 80 kilometers per hour (49 miles per hour) when the bus entered the Gyeongbu Expressway. The speed limit there was 50 kilometers per hour.

“One solution may be to run inter-city buses partially using profits and partially using local government money,” said an official of the Gyeonggi provincial office. “We are looking to try out the idea at the end of this year.”

Government subsidies would help increase the number of inter-city buses and drivers, thus lowering each driver’s working hours and allowing more time to rest. Seoul has already put into practice the private-public operation of buses, and the results have been positive. In the survey by the Catholic University of Korea, none of the Seoul bus drivers said they drive more than 18 hours a day.

This is a crucial improvement, since there were 2,241 traffic accidents caused by sleepy drivers on highways in the past five years, leading to the deaths of 414 people. Dozing off for two to three seconds at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour is equivalent to driving blind for at least 100 meters.

Last July, a bus driver dozed off at the wheel on the Yeongdong Expressway and crushed a car, killing its four female passengers, all university students in their 20s. The driver had not fully rested before getting behind the wheel.

Moreover, in terms of driving ability, being awake for 18 hours is comparable to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 percent, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while being awake for 24 hours is comparable having a BAC of 0.1 percent.

A person with a BAC of at least 0.05 percent is considered drunk by Korean law.

“Unlike drunk driving, there is no device we can use to measure whether a driver dozed off behind the wheel,” said one police officer. “So the best authorities can do is come up with preventive measures.”

Democratic Party Rep. Lim Jong-seong proposed one such measure last August - an amendment to the Motor Vehicle Management Act that would make the installation of a Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS) and an Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) device mandatory on buses and large cargo trucks.

The LDWS warns drivers if their vehicle veers off its lane by way of visual, vibration or sound warnings. The AEB device warns the driver if a crash is imminent and automatically applies the brakes.

The National Assembly passed the amendment in December, but only made the installation of the LDWS mandatory.

“The installation of the LDWS would cost around 500,000 won [$434] per bus, but the installation of both the LDWS and AEB would cost millions of won,” said a staff member of Rep. Lim’s office. “Even if the central and local governments were to subsidize the costs, lawmakers were concerned that the cost would still be too high.”

As a result, cargo trucks and buses bought this year are required to have the LDWS installed by next year, while older vehicles must have the LDWS installed by 2019. Drivers will be asked to pay 20 percent of the cost.

In addition, President Moon Jae-in proposed on Tuesday at his Cabinet meeting to discuss mandating the installation of a Forward Collision Warning System, which warns drivers of an imminent collision by way of visual, vibration or sound warnings. But this would be a warning system and, unlike the AEB, would not automatically apply the brakes.

The AEB, estimated by experts to cost some 4 million won, could however have saved the lives of the couple who died on Sunday. The Kia Optima K5 they were riding in was crushed beyond recognition. The 58-year-old surnamed Shin and 56-year-old surnamed Seol were tailors at a factory in Dongdaemun District, eastern Seoul, for about 20 years.

Their desks, facing each other at the factory, were as the two had left them last Friday when the reporter visited. Shin’s medicine for blood dialysis was still on his desk.

Each day for hours, Seol would pass her work to Shin after sewing it, and Shin would trim it down with his scissors and iron it.

“The two were looking forward to their grandson’s birth,” said a relative, “which is coming up in three months.”

“Seol knew I wasn’t doing well financially,” said Jee In-sook, a 47-year-old coworker, “and one day she lent me 10 million won out of the blue, and she told me to let her know if I needed more.”

She added, “I can’t forget her voice.”

The couple often enjoyed going on outings in their car over the weekends. They were coming back from one on Sunday when the truck hit them.

BY YU SUNG-KUK, KIM MIN-WOOK [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]