Dead­locked bus strike a dan­ger to all

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@city­

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.

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