London bus drivers descended on City Hall in the capital today (August 29) to demand action from Transport for London (TfL) and private bus operators after the publication of a shock new report into bus driver fatigue.
The report incontrovertibly proved that the experiences of Unite bus drivers, who face gruelling shift patterns and intolerable working conditions, are not isolated instances but are in fact part of an entrenched epidemic of dangerous levels of exhaustion.
The report found that 21 per cent of bus drivers had to ‘fight sleepiness’ at least two or three times a week. Thirty six per cent had a ‘close call’ due to fatigue in the last 12 months, 17 per cent had actually fallen asleep at least once while driving and five per cent had been involved in at least one accident in the last year due to fatigue.
Bus drivers at today’s demo told harrowing stories of falling asleep at the wheel, working shifts with so little sleep that they felt as though they were drugged.
Unite bus driver and rep Boa Singh (pictured below) said falling asleep at the wheel was a common experience, one that he called “an outrage”.
“There’s so much pressure to be on time that we are pressured to take risks like breaking the speed limit and skip our breaks,” he explained. “There are often no facilities so we don’t have the time nor the place to use the toilet for hours.”
Unite bus driver and shop steward Louise (pictured), who has been in the job for more than three decades, said that being overworked has become so common that workers at her garage “are simply worn out all the time”.
“People are afraid of taking time off for being tired because they fear they’ll be disciplined,” she explained. “Because shifts are so unbalanced and long, with only five minute breaks between each, even if you do have a decent night sleep, you’re still exhausted.”
Bus drivers who spoke to Unite highlighted that a common shift pattern for bus drivers means they’ll only have one or two days off for every week they work. Sometimes, they’ll go two weeks before having a day off. Because they switch from day to night shifts, they’re circadian rhythms are turned upside down.
“Just recently I had to be up at 4 in the morning, but I couldn’t fall asleep until 1am because my body clock and the stress wouldn’t let me,” explained Unite bus driver and John O’Rourke. “I’m nodding off at the wheel on my way to work.”
“The shift patterns are a real killer because they multiply the fatigue all the time. You’re fatigued constantly because you haven’t properly recovered from the shift before or the shift before that. When I get my two days off, I spend one in bed all day and the other just preparing for work. I’ve got no family or social life.”
Unite rep and bus driver Dave Turner (pictured above) was so stressed from fatigue and social isolation spending time away from family and friends that he was for several years put on anti-depressants.
“People don’t realise how bad the job is, as it is managed now, for drivers’ mental and physical health,” he said. “If you’ve worked in the job for a few years, you’re much more likely to have heart problems, circulatory issues, diabetes, and mental health problems.”
“If you’re on shift work, you can’t see your family; after a while your friends stop calling because you’re either working or sleeping, you can’t be involved in any hobbies – that’s a big reason why I became depressed.”
Unite is now calling on TfL to take decisive action in response to the Loughborough report, whose publication was a direct result of the union’s lobbying.
So far, TfL has pledged to provide £500,000 of funding for bus operators to put forward new ways to tackle fatigue, and will also require bus operators who are awarded new contracts after the summer of 2020 to demonstrate a robust system to reduce the risk of fatigue.
But Unite believes much more must be done to tackle fatigue, and that any effective system must ensure bus operators introduce civilised rosters, provide decent driver facilities, and replace the militaristic, disciplinarian culture in the garages with a more open and cooperative one.
Unite has also called for low pay to be tackled, which the union believes is another driver of fatigue – when bus drivers don’t earn enough, they feel forced to work excessive overtime to make ends meet.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan attended today’s demo and pledged to do all in his power to ensure bus operators take action.
Commenting on the report, which was commissioned by TfL, Khan said, “This should be a wake-up call for TfL to do much, much more to improve the conditions of our bus drivers to make sure that the fatigue and tiredness many bus drivers suffer [ends].
“I promise to work with Unite, TfL and the bus operators to improve conditions so that future generations can be proud to become bus drivers. This is by no means the end.”
Unite regional officer John Murphy said that while fatigue was being blamed on bus drivers by the firms they work for, Unite member weren’t going to accept this.
“Fatigue is caused by the bus operators and TfL,” he said. “Drivers won’t take the blame because of operators greed.”