Crash boom bus
Bus and coach crashes plague the industry both locally and globally. Are profits being put ahead of human lives? Are management, maintenance and driver skills not up to scratch? FOCUS investigates
The month of August was clearly not a good one during which to travel by bus. “Bus overloaded before crash,” stated Independent Online (IOL). “Four die, seven trapped in Ceres bus crash,” reported Eye Witness News. “Pongola bus crash toll rises,” IOL said. “Thirty-two children injured in Johannesburg school bus crash,” read The Times. “They prayed, screamed, when bus crashed through barrier,” City Press pronounced.
These were just a few of the public transport-related headlines making news throughout the month. The truth, though, is that any bus industry in the world suffers from a recurring plague of crashes.
According to the Southern African Bus Operators Association (Saboa), there are about 25 000 buses in operation in South Africa (of which about 18 000 are operating for reward). In total, public transport buses conduct approximately 816 million passenger trips per annum, travelling an estimated 1,02 billion kilometres and consuming about 453 million litres of fuel in the process.
Punters will wager that the likelihood of all those people taking all those trips, over all those kilometres, in all those buses, simply cannot go without incident all the time. Humans err, mechanics fail, accidents happen. If that is the case, though, why is it that, according to the Trauma Society of South Africa, in the United Kingdom bus travel is 10 times safer than travelling by car and 3,5 times safer in the United States?
In June, Mpumalanga community safety, security and liaison MEC, Vusi Shongwe, urged public transport operators to “not place profits above human lives by ensuring that vehicles are in a good condition and not overloaded …” Is this what is happening? Are profits put ahead of passengers lives?
Surely that practice can’t apply across the board, but then where else are things going wrong, and what can be done to reduce the chances of fatalities in bus crashes? As has been underlined by various local bus crashes in the past, it is clearly not enough to take it for granted that all buses on the road have passed (or even undergone) their safety inspections.
“Overall the operators do try,” says Vaughan Mostert, FOCUS columnist and senior lecturer at the University of Johannesburg’s transport and supply chain management department. “So do the police, every now and then, when they carry out blitzes and pull buses off the road.” But “to try” is not enough …
“It is worrying, though, that bus companies often do get it wrong,” Mostert continues. “Look at commuter buses, for example. Double-decker buses in Johannesburg, many of which are over
10 years old, are often grossly overloaded with standing passengers upstairs. It’s only a matter of time before an axle breaks on one of these buses,” he cautions.
But what if that was to happen? What recourse do passengers have following a crash? “None,” says executive manager of Saboa, Eric Cornelius. “In terms of the Road Accident Fund Act, passengers have no legal recourse against a company after a crash. This change was made by government,” he continues.
This does get one wondering: where do the priorities lie? If an operating company cannot be held responsible by those it transports, can passengers be certain it will place their lives first? Is it left up to passengers to ensure that the company they travel with is reputable and has a good record, the vehicle they travel in is in a safe and roadworthy condition, and the person into whose hands they’ve entrusted their lives is a competent, alert and skilled driver? Again highlighted by some past crashes, this is not always possible.
Of course, the roadworthiness of a vehicle is reflected on its vehicle licence disk, displayed on the windscreen. But, that’s about all that is immediately visible to the passenger’s eye. “Bus and coach travel is the only mode of transport that is required to have its vehicles tested every six months for roadworthiness. This is something that also needs to be expanded to taxis and freight vehicles,” says Cornelius. “However, if a passenger wants information about the safety record of a company, he or she will have to approach that company for this information.”
Companies that run vehicles which do not comply with the National Road Traffic Act could, however, lose their permits/operating licences. Not that the procedures and requirements to obtain such a licence are overly strict. “Virtually anyone can obtain an operating licence and enter the industry without providing any proof that he or she has a basic knowledge of the industry, has any knowledge of managing a business, or is able and capable of maintaining vehicles in a roadworthy condition,” Cornelius says with disdain.
“Similarly, a driver could be appointed because he or she may have a valid driving licence (which is not necessarily the correct licence for the type of vehicle) and because he or she is able to drive the vehicle. This does not necessarily mean that this person is a safe driver. There needs to be more stringent pre-selection testing to identify potential drivers, whereafter they should be properly trained,” he adds.
“In the same vein, it should be a requirement that a person must first undergo training in what is required to become a bus or coach operator, and provide proof thereof, before applying for an operating licence,” he continues.
In theory, this is really not too difficult to achieve; we do have many local operators leading by example who could be considered world class.
Imagine the headlines: “South African bus business among the world’s best.” Imagine … .