Exhausted London bus drivers, many of whom are suffering from chronic fatigue, are gearing up to vote for strike action in defence of health and safety.
Unite announced that it will begin a consultative ballot of 20,000 of its London bus driver members for strike action; if members back the ballot, they could walk out later this year and bring the capital to a standstill.
The ballot comes in response to both TfL and bus operators failing to take action after the publication of a report last year highlighting the extent of exhaustion among the workforce.
The Loughborough survey, commissioned by Transport for London (TfL) and published last August, discovered 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.
Shift patterns ‘real killer’
After the Loughborough report was first published, Unite organised a demo outside London’s City Hall over the summer, which was attended by scores of bus drivers from across the capital.
Unite bus driver and rep Boa Singh 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,” Singh told UniteLive. “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 who has been in the job for more than three decades, told UniteLive that being overworked had 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.”
Unite bus driver and rep John O’Rourke said there needed to be an overhaul in how shifts are scheduled.
“The shift patterns are a real killer because they multiply the fatigue all the time,” he said. “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.”
Take responsibility call
Bus drivers are angry that TfL’s response has been to shift blame to individual bus operators, while bus operators have said that it is bus drivers’ responsibility to ensure that they get more sleep.
Unite has demanded that both TfL and bus operators stop passing the buck. Instead, the union has called for a revolution in how bus driving is scheduled to ensure that drivers can finish on time, are able to utilise all of their breaks, work to proper schedules, have enough running time to complete their journey, are treated with respect and receive proper training.
“London bus drivers have had enough; they are permanently fatigued and at risk of being a danger to other road users, bus passengers and themselves,” said Unite regional officer John Murphy.
“Unite will shortly be conducting a consultative ballot and provided our members endorse industrial action, strikes will follow later this year unless action is taken to ensure that the problems causing chronic fatigue for our members are resolved,” he added.
“TfL cannot simply sweep this problem under the carpet,” Murphy went on to say. “It must act decisively and stop trying to pass the problem onto bus operators who have consistently failed to resolve the issue and have instead allowed it to worsen.
“For the last 25 years bus operators have been failing to deal with this problem. Unite members are saying enough is enough.”
‘Sounding like a spaceship’
This month Unite has also raised the alarm over news that TfL will be trialling a new sound for London’s electric buses.
The union is concerned that the sound, which is needed since electric buses are silent, sounds nothing like a London bus and has instead been described as “sounding like a spaceship”.
Unite was initially consulted last year about potential sounds but the union said it had rejected all suggestions because none of them sounded like buses, which could give rise to potential safety issues.
Unite lead officer for London buses John Murphy said, “Unite recognises that it is imperative that the new electric buses make a clearly audible sound for safety reasons.
“However we believe that the sound chosen is potentially dangerous as it sounds nothing like a bus,” he explained.
“In a world where people are increasingly distracted when walking, due to the use of electronic devices it is essential that there is a clear and obvious sound of a London bus,” Murphy added.
“If people hear the spaceship sound they won’t think ‘bus’ and could place themselves unintentionally in danger.”