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Tour bus crash shows safety costs may have been sacrificed amid cutthroat competition

Two drivers and many passengers headed to a ski resort were killed or injured in a bus crash in the Nagano Prefecture town of Karuizawa in the early hours of Jan. 15.

    The easing of regulations in the bus industry prompted a slew of startups. However, a series of accidents involving tour buses have occurred against the backdrop of cutthroat competition among tour bus firms, with the central government's safety measures failing to keep up with the demanding new conditions. The latest accident, however, took place amid rising awareness of safety needs and measures within the industry following a re-tightening of regulations.

    Many long-distance highway buses depart from and arrive at the west exit of Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. "For me, accidents aren't just someone else's problem," said a driver in his 40s who was waiting for passengers at the side of the road on the afternoon of Jan. 15. "I received instructions from our company to practice safe driving."

    The bus industry changed dramatically between 2000 and 2002, when regulations were relaxed by the government. To adjust for supply and demand, the charter bus industry had been operating under a central government licensing system. But from 2000 onward, the licensing system was changed to an approval system that allowed all business operators who met certain criteria to enter the industry, leading to a series of new companies going into the chartered bus business.

    At the time that ESP, the company which owned the bus in the Karuizawa crash, was founded in 2008, the firm was largely involved in providing security services, and only in May 2014 did it enter the bus business.

    Unlike buses running on set routes to a set schedule, tour buses -- which entail a tour company planning a trip that is then carried out by a charter bus company -- are subject to few restrictions. The tour company and charter bus firm are also not required to submit travel plans to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism prior to a trip. With competition intensifying in the charter bus business, many had sounded the alarm on the dangers of the charter bus industry. And then two major bus accidents occurred.

    One took place in February 2007, when a tour bus hit a monorail bridge pier in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, after the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, killing one person and injuring 26 others. In June 2008, the transport ministry established guidelines limiting the distance one driver can drive in a day to 670 kilometers, and demanded bus companies arrange for replacement drivers when distances exceeded that limit.

    The second major accident was in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, on the Kanetsu Expressway in April 2012. A tour bus crashed into a wall, killing seven people on board and injuring 38. The driver is said to have become drowsy behind the wheel. Between 2012 and 2013, the transport ministry lowered, as a general rule, the maximum distance a single driver can drive in a day to 500 kilometers during daytime hours, and 400 kilometers at night. The ministry also required bus companies to use tachographs to monitor driving times, and simultaneously revised the fare system, raising both the minimum and maximum standard fares allowed.

    According to a Tokyo-based travel agency, such measures weeded out very small operators who could not afford the higher costs.

    Bigholiday Co., a tour agency based in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, says that safety costs at bus companies have risen. The amount of money tour agencies pay bus companies for carrying out tours has ballooned by about 1.5 times as well, the company says.

    Tours organized by Keyth Tour, the company that planned the tour involved in the latest crash, charges between 13,000 yen and 20,000 yen for a single-night or two-night stay at a ski resort, including lift tickets. "There's been an industry-wide improvement in safety awareness and measures, making it impossible to offer tours at the low prices of the past," a representative for another travel agency said. "Our tour that takes customers from Tokyo to Kamikochi, Nagano Prefecture, costs at least 14,000 yen just for the round-trip bus fare. Keyth Tour's fares are extremely low, which suggests they were significantly cutting costs."

    In response, Keyth Tour President Mankichi Fukuda told reporters, "We have definitely not cut back on safety measures."

    According to Chiaki Ichihashi, a board member of the Tokyo Bus Association, which counts 94 Tokyo-based bus companies as its members, the organization has promoted and implemented various safety measures, including offering subsidies for testing drivers for apnea syndrome, and installing safety equipment on buses. However, such services and information are offered only to members of the association. ESP, the bus company involved in the latest accident, is not a member, which brings into question the extent to which safety measures and awareness is spreading and taking root in the bus industry as a whole.

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