4th June 2016, NH1: we are passing Sonepat, enroute to Manali from Gurgaon. The chauffer has driven from Chandigarh last night and reached Delhi at 3a.m. After resting for 4 hours, he was sent to drive me to the mountains.
As the car zooms past other cars, I remember the interaction I have had with drivers in the last 2 months. I travelled from Manali to Palampur, a journey of about 300kms which takes 7 hours. Palampur is enroute to Dharamshala and there are mini buses plying this route on a regular basis. The onward journey happens in the morning. Another vehicle returns with passengers at night to ferry more passengers the next morning and so it continues.
Drivers take turns so that each gets adequate amount of rest in between long drives. The scheduled bus could not come due to a mechanical glitch. Hence our driver was sent who had been awake for the last 12 hours. He is a resident of Dharamshala, been driving since 20 years and staying awake for upto 48 hours was normal for him.
On the drive back from Palampur, I saw 2 buses and a truck that had gone off the road and lay in a precarious position.
(Against my Mother’s wish) I tried the Volvo bus service from Manali to Delhi. The driver entered the bus with blood shot eyes. He had undertaken a journey of 14 hours with rest of less than 4 hours before the ensuing trip. A light hearted person who shared stories of his life on the roads, he called himself Kali Don. Not one to take life seriously, he shared his motto, ‘Don’t worry about sleep or shower, keep working on Shiva power’.
The 14 hour bus journey from Manali to Delhi had two drivers allocated for the journey. Apart from Kali Don, the other driver was a gentleman from Sikar village in Rajasthan. He must have been in his 60s. While they took turns in driving, the other slept on the bus floor between the seats.
Since the bus was full, I was given the seat next to the driver with strict instructions that I cannot sleep the entire journey. Although I had the best seat on the house with 180 degree views of the valley and mountains ahead, by the time I reached, lack of a good night’s sleep took its toll.
A discussion in a cafe one evening led to a person from Spain to share that he saw a driver sniff elements to stay awake. This is seconded by Mr.Ramesh Agarwal, Founder of Agarwal Packers and Movers, who shares that the drivers resort to kali goli or opium based pills to stay awake. 80% bus drivers take substances which increase the blood flow and therefore keep them active, shares Gagandeep Singh, a private taxi driver.
A friend from Czech Republic met with an accident while travelling from Manali to Delhi. Thankfully, she reached home safe with a few injuries. Not everyone is as fortunate.
Research online shows that lack of sleep, for drivers, is not an issue only in Himachal Pradesh, but all over India. Writers have written about instances in Chennai and Rajasthan.
All these instances made me question the absence of regulation for drivers on the road. It is not only the bus drivers who have unhuman shifts, this applies to the private taxi drivers as well. Gagandeep Singh, a driver based out of Chandigarh, who regularly has outstation trips shared that drivers are paid according to the number of trips they take. Therefore, they agree to undertake the journey with limited rest.
According to a study by All India Transport Welfare Association (AITWA), an industry body of transporters, an estimated 26,650 people died (out of a total of 139,091 deaths) as a result of drowsy driving in 2012. In 2013, this figure was 24,081 (out of a total of 137,423).
Europe has a fantastic network of buses to explore the country. According to the European Commission, Regulation (EC) No 561/2006 provides a common set of EU rules for maximum daily and fortnightly driving times, as well as daily and weekly minimum rest periods for all drivers of road haulage and passenger transport vehicles, subject to specified exceptions and national derogations.The aim of this set of rules is to avoid distortion of competition, improve road safety and ensure drivers’ good working conditions within the European Union.
These rules establish that:
- Daily driving period shall not exceed 9 hours, with an exemption of twice a week when it can be extended to 10 hours.
- Total weekly driving time may not exceed 56 hours and the total fortnightly driving time may not exceed 90 hours.
- Daily rest period shall be at least 11 hours, with an exception of going down to 9 hours maximum three times a week. Daily rest can be split into 3 hours rest followed by 9 hour rest to make a total of 12 hours daily rest
- Weekly rest is 45 continuous hours, which can be reduced every second week to 24 hours. Compensation arrangements apply for reduced weekly rest period. Weekly rest is to be taken after six days of working, except for coach drivers engaged in a single occasional service of international transport of passengers who may postpone their weekly rest period after 12 days in order to facilitate coach holidays.
- Breaks of at least 45 minutes (separable into 15 minutes followed by 30 minutes) should be taken after 4 ½ hours at the latest.
The compliance with these provisions is subject to continuous monitoring and controls, which are carried out on national and international level via checking tachograph records at the road side and at the premises of undertakings.
In spite of these rules in place, EU experienced 25,900 road fatalities in 2014. The European Commission is working towards reducing deaths on the road in Europe between 2011 and 2020. A national level program which focuses on improving road safety and infrastructure facilities is working towards the same.
- The road travel industry can definitely take a cue from the airline industry. Air Travel is statistically known to be the safest mode of transport, with the least number of accidents. A report on flight & duty time limitation and rest requirements for flight crew members by Nasim Zaidi Committee acknowledges that the airline industry has to be operational for 24 hours. Therefore, regulations towards duration of shift, amount of sleep required for crew, maintaining the circadian rhythms is very crucial for efficient working of the industry and its stakeholders.
The report states that recent scientific consensus concluded that 15% to 20% of all transportation accidents are caused by fatigue (i.e. sleepiness, tiredness). In aviation, incident reports to the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting Systems suggest that about 21% are fatigue related, with the majority of these occurring between midnight and 0600 hours.There are detailed guidelines and rules laid down to understand circadian physiology. The Committee has also suggested best practices in awake time, recovery period, fatigue risk management systems, detailed tables for flight duty time depending on sector and number of pilots operating the flight.The road travel sector is unorganised compared to the airlines sector. Local operators who own a fleet of 4 to 20 cars form majority of the players in India. Participation of the private sector eg: companies like Ola and Uber can help implement guidelines for vehicle drivers, like Jet Airways, Indigo, Go Air and other airlines follow for pilots.
- Mr.Ramesh Agarwal has started a fantastic initiative of Nindra Daan Kendra (Sleep stations) for drivers. It is an integrated facility with services like a barber shop, laundry room and more. The industry is dependent on logistics to transport their goods from one part of the country to another. Trucks and buses form a major part of the logistics in India. More corporate companies can take a cue from Mr.Agarwal and set up these stations as part of their CSR activities.