Tragedy involving inexperienced driver must never be repeated

Travel demand, which became sluggish amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, has been rapidly recovering. Service providers must take all possible measures to ensure safety so that accidents won’t turn fun trips into a nightmare.

One person died and 26 others were seriously or slightly injured when a tourist bus overturned in the town of Oyama, Shizuoka Prefecture. There are growing suspicions that the accident could have been caused by brake fade, a phenomenon in which the brakes of a vehicle get less responsive when a driver uses the foot brake too often.

Inspections of the bus by the prefectural police and the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry found signs of burns on some parts of its brake system. The 26-year-old driver of the bus, who was arrested on the spot, was quoted by the police as saying that the vehicle’s brakes did not work.

The bus overturned while traveling from the fifth station of Mt. Fuji on a long downhill stretch of road, and the accident site was on a section that is known to be demanding because of a series of curves. To slow down vehicles, it is an iron rule that drivers should rely on engine and exhaust brakes, the latter of which can be found on heavy-duty vehicles.

If a professional driver kept hitting the foot brake to the point where some parts began to burn, the action should be described as an elementary mistake. The prefectural police should scrutinize the cause of the accident.

The arrested driver joined the operator of the bus in July last year. While he had received training on how to drive on mountain roads, it was reportedly his first time driving on the tour route in question. When carrying many passengers, the weight of a bus increases, making it difficult for the driver to slow down. The driver’s lack of experience and skills might have been one of the factors behind the accident.

The demand for tour buses arranged by travel agencies fell sharply amid the pandemic. Some bus companies reduced the number of drivers while they were facing a sharp decrease in operations.

This month, the government launched a nationwide travel discount program to boost sightseeing demand, while also relaxing its border control measures against the coronavirus. To meet the surging demand for buses, quite a number of companies have probably rushed to hire novice and inexperienced drivers.

When it comes to bus travel, there have been accidents with many casualties, such as the one that occurred on the Kan-Etsu Expressway in Gunma Prefecture and another in the town of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. These accidents highlighted the issues of long-distance driving and overwork for drivers, prompting the transport ministry to tighten regulations over operators.

However, no matter what regulations have been put in place, drivers’ experiences and skills play an important role in preventing accidents from occurring. To provide services that cover demanding roads like the one at the foot of Mt. Fuji, bus operators should consider giving drivers training programs in which they can run on the routes with veterans at their side.

This year, a tourist boat sank off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, killing many passengers. Travel service providers should be aware that they are responsible for customers’ lives and should thoroughly check their operations and management systems.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 29, 2022)