Deadlocked bus strike a danger to all
The deadlocked bus transport pay and conditions negotiations went into mediation this past week. And at stake is much more than money and working conditions, especially of drivers. At stake is the safety of commuters and of all road users.
Among the proposals tabled by the bus company owners is one that drivers work “split shifts” covering 16 hours. This has correctly been labelled by the small Transport and Omnibus Workers’ Union as irresponsible and dangerous.
Two of the bigger unions involved, the Cosatuaffiliated SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union and the newest entrant to this sector, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, have demanded extra payment for such shifts. But there is general agreement that money cannot compensate for damage to the health of workers and danger to life and limb of bus passengers and other road users.
And that is what such split shifts mean. The proposal is that drivers report to work for a three-hour morning shift, have an eight-hour break and then work a further five hours. Unlike transcontinental airline pilots, there is no provision for sleeping accommodation during those eight hours.
What this means is that, taking account of the time taken travelling to and from work, many drivers would be awake for much of an 18-hour day.
This would cause sleep deprivation, a technique used by torturers the world over and one that has been clearly shown to be a major danger when it comes to passenger transport.
A classic case that I reported on 16 years ago concerned Jurgen Gouws, the driver of a Johannesburg Metrorail commuter train that ploughed into a goods train. Four passengers died and 17 were injured.
At a disciplinary hearing, Gouws was found guilty of “gross neglect of duty”. It was ruled that he had driven his train “recklessly and negligently”, passing signals and causing not only fatalities, but also R7 million in damages to railway property. He faced a criminal charge of culpable homicide.
What happened was that Gouws fell asleep — which, when the evidence was given at an arbitration hearing, was scarcely surprising. He had worked for seven days a week for months on end. Of his last 14 shifts, eight had been for longer than 14 hours. Gouws was suffering from extreme fatigue. As Alison Bentley, then head of the sleep clinic at the University of the Witwatersrand noted, had it been liquor – rather than sleep deprivation – which had brought him to that state, he would have been dead from alcohol poisoning.
It has been known for many years — and still largely ignored — that just 17 sleepless hours will have the same effect on the average driver as being over the limit for alcohol consumption.
There is also a cumulative effect when sleep is interrupted and when an individual stays awake for lengthy periods over several days, weeks or months.
Given the annual carnage on our roads, something that affects us all, the unions deserve public support in their demands for adherence not only to safe driver practices, but also to a decent living wage for all transport workers.