EDITORIAL: Asleep at the wheel?

By: Chris Smith

New driver fatigue regulations threaten to cause chaos in the nation’s bus and coach industry. As ABC reported last month, the

New driver fatigue regulations threaten to cause chaos in the nation’s bus and coach industry.

As ABC reported last month, the new laws require drivers working night shifts to have four night rests — between 10pm to 8am — every fortnight, with at least two of them consecutive.

Because New South Wales night bus operations run every day of the year to cover the absence of 24-hour train services, the regulation will have a major impact on operators and drivers. Night drivers operate according to fixed rosters and regular midnight-to-dawn hours.

Additionally, the new laws will no longer permit the practice of calling in an off-duty driver who regularly works nights as they ban operators from scheduling midnight-to-dawn work.

Operators will either have the choice of making major changes to work practices (mixing day and night shifts) or designing their own fatigue management program and seeking Advanced Fatigue Management accreditation (allows outer limit of 16 hours plus changes to rest rules). The latter would force operators to meet stringent requirements — and a heavy price — just to operate a four-hour shift.

The regulations also present problems for the tourist and charter sector. Currently drivers can bank rest days, but must take four days off in 28. This practice suits the event-based nature of the market, allowing drivers to work for intense periods before taking several days off. This will no longer be allowed.

How did the industry end up with a set of regulations that fail to recognise the fundamental differences between long-haul truck driving and the set-route operations of many drivers?

One must point the finger, at least initially, at the National Transport Commission (NTC), which devised model laws that most states and territories legislated to come into force from September 29.

Serious questions should be asked as to how the Commission either failed to recognise or ignored the impact these changes would have on the sector.

Industry associations, led by the Bus Industry Confederation (BIC), had been arguing the case for alternative arrangements for bus and coach operators for as long as seven years. But to no avail.

More recently in the lead up to the September 29 deadline BIC Executive Director Michael Apps was forced to write to the nation’s transport ministers urging them to implement a bus-specific system.

Despite contacting ministers on August 19, Apps did not receive any response in regards to the industry’s concerns.

It is only now, as a result of the NSW Government’s sudden realisation of the financial consequences for its own operation, STA, that the pollies and bureaucrats have been drawn back to the negotiating table.

It’s not as if the details were unknown.

Trawling back through our records it’s clear the rest requirements were known at least 12 months ago.

Indeed, ABC revealed the ramifications in its April 2008 edition, but few obviously took heed of the headline ‘Wake up call’.

Don’t be surprised to see some significant amendments to the regulations as a result.

But what about operators in other states and territories?

BusNSW estimates the new rules will force operators to employ extra drivers and push up labour costs by a hefty 12.5 percent. That’s clearly unworkable.

It’s time for the NTC to state and territory regulators to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new set of fatigue regulations that reflect the industry’s operational requirements.

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