There are some troubling statistics that seem to illustrate the reasons behind recent shifts in the causes of bus crashes.
A report compiled by an investigative committee of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in July 2014 showed that the number of bus drivers had remained at around 13,000 for a decade. However, the number of fixed-route bus drivers was headed toward a long-term downturn, and the distance driven by each driver was on the increase.
In addition, the average age of bus drivers rose from 45.9 to 48.3 in 10 years, and one in six drivers were found to be 60 years old or older. Meanwhile, at 4.4 million yen, drivers' annual income was lower than the national average of about 4.7 million yen.
Ninety-seven percent of the 35 bus companies that responded to the ministry committee's survey said that they were feeling the impact of driver shortages.
According to an annual report on accidents involving transport vehicles, also released by the transport ministry, the number of bus accidents resulting from drivers' health issues went from 18 in 2003 to 58 in 2012 -- a more than threefold increase in a span of nine years. The most common health issues were gastrointestinal ailments, at seven cases, followed by subarachnoid hemorrhages and other brain conditions at six cases, and fainting and dizziness at four.
Low wages and labor shortages increase the burden on drivers. "Even if you're not feeling too well, as long as you get on that bus you're going to get paid," a representative for the Japan Federation of Transport Workers' Union explained. "So even if a driver is asked about their health, they'll say they're fine, even if it means they struggle a bit, creating a vicious cycle."