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Editorial: Have lessons of past bus crashes been put to good use?

The deadly tour bus crash in Nagano Prefecture has raised questions as to whether the bus operator took sufficient measures to prevent an accident and ensure the safety of its passengers.

    A tour bus with 41 people -- 39 passengers headed to a ski resort, and two drivers -- broke through the guardrail along Route 18 in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, and fell about 3 meters into a forest along the road in the early hours of Jan. 15, killing 14 people including the drivers, and injuring 26 others.

    The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and other relevant organizations must thoroughly examine the company's safety measures and help prevent a recurrence.

    The ski tour was organized by a Tokyo-based travel agency, and the bus was operated by a charter bus company in western Tokyo.

    Attention should be focused on whether the bus company managed its drivers' health conditions in an appropriate manner. The company had been slapped with an administrative disciplinary action for failing to conduct health checkups on its drivers, but whether there was a causal relationship between this failure and the accident cannot be proven immediately. The relevant organizations should ascertain whether there were problems with the company's labor and health management practices.

    The latest crash has reminded many members of the public of a 2012 tour bus accident on the Kanetsu Expressway in Gunma Prefecture that left seven passengers dead. The 2012 accident was caused by the bus driver becoming drowsy.

    At the time, there was fierce discount pricing competition in the industry as a growing number of people were using expressway buses. As a result, expressway bus drivers were forced to be at the wheel for long hours. The 2012 accident highlighted a lack of safety awareness on the part of both travel agencies that organize bus tours, and bus operators.

    The case prompted the ministry to discuss safety measures at a panel of experts and fundamentally review the bus business as a whole. Specifically, the ministry has set an upper limit on the distance and hours that one driver can drive per day, beefed up requirements for the deployment of replacement drivers, and stiffened criteria for approving bus companies. The ministry has also checked whether bus operators are abiding by laws and regulations, and conducted intensive inspections on what it regards as problematic operators.

    The ministry has also stepped up measures to manage operations. Since May last year, bus operators have been obligated to appoint at least one operations manager, who gives instructions to drivers to swiftly respond to driver illness and traffic snarls.

    At the time of the latest accident, the bus was traveling along an ordinary road with many curves, instead of an expressway as planned. It is necessary to clarify whether the change of route was appropriate.

    Many of the victims suffered head trauma. It is necessary to consider measures to minimize injuries and other damage in case of an accident. Passengers should also be encouraged to fasten their seatbelts when buses are in motion.

    A lower limit is set on bus fares depending on the time and distance buses travel in order to prevent excessive price competition from threatening safety. Therefore, bus fares have been on an upward trend in recent years. To reduce prices, tour operators are trying to shorten their tour routes. It has also been pointed out that there is a shortage of bus drivers, and that drivers are aging.

    Safety measures that have been implemented so far based on lessons learned from the Kanetsu Expressway accident should be thoroughly scrutinized from every angle to see if there is any blind spot in these measures.

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