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Bus and Motor Coach Library

Safety & Operations

Author - Matthew Daecher, Daecher Consulting Group (2005)

It's a classic tug of war - safety versus operations.  In small passenger carrier operations, one person may very well play all the roles in the organization, including driver.  As a company grows though, additional staff must be added to compensate for growth and provide the resources necessary to allow for future growth.  Staff will be added to handle driving, sales, dispatching, scheduling, maintenance, and safety and compliance functions.  How the various functions relate to one another and the general safety awareness and knowledge of all the working parts will have a major impact on the safety of the operation.
            It's safe to say that most reputable operators really do care about safety and one of their core objectives is to operate legally and safely.  What usually takes many companies a long time to understand is that designed education and interaction of all departments is necessary to truly have a safe operation.  Why?  Because different departments within a company will have different objectives, of which safety may be less than number one.   Making the objectives of each department subordinate to a premier core objective of safety is where the challenge lies.  The following tips will help you to avoid some of the safety pitfalls which can be found in operations where there is a disconnect between one or more of the company's objectives.
            The first pothole is the notion that "safety" begins and ends with the Safety department.  The fact is every department plays a part in the overall safety of the operation.  The safety department usually prepares drivers to operate fleet vehicles safely, monitors regulatory compliance, investigates accidents, and handles ongoing driver management functions.  Maintenance obviously plays a role in the safety of the fleet vehicles drivers operate and the related safety of those on board and the general public who travel the same roadways as the vehicle.  Sales, dispatching, and scheduling also play key roles in the safe operation of the vehicles and company.  The ways in which roles and operations outside the Safety department effect the overall safe operation of the company are explored in more detail below.
            Another pothole comes early in the process of operating - when trips and/or tours are sold and/or organized.  This task falls under the sales department, whose objective is simple - sell trips to keep the buses (and drivers) busy so that the company can realize necessary revenue.  What they don't often take into account is the safety impact of what they are selling.  Most salespeople make the obligatory nod to hours of service and tell customers of legal limitations in these areas.  (con’t on page 26) However, there is no doubt that a legal operation and safe operation can be two different things.  Remember, regulations are a minimum requirement, which may not always equate to a truly safe option.  Tours and trips are often sold and/or organized taking into account the minimum required time off between duty shifts for drivers - eight hours.  Even in the best circumstances, which would be dropping a group at a hotel where them and the driver are staying, eight hours off doesn't equate to eight hours of rest.  By the time a driver parks the vehicle in the designated and safe area, checks in, gets settled, calls home, winds down, and falls asleep, the rest period is less than eight hours.  The next morning, the driver needs to get up, shower, eat breakfast, check out and prepare for the day's trip.  This further erodes the eight hours off between driving routinely scheduled for the driver by the sales personnel/organizers.  Scheduling in this manner, especially over a multiple-day itinerary, begs for driver fatigue and disaster.  A better approach would be to schedule trips with at least 10 hours between driving times to afford drivers the necessary rest to perform at optimal and safer levels.  Educating sales personnel to schedule in this manner will take training and oversight.  However, you will have a safer operation. 
            I know the above recommendation may be difficult to swallow.  Truth be known, you may lose some business to competitors who schedule trips/tours more aggressively.  However, the reputation as a safe and concerned operation you build in the long term will benefit your company long after other competitors are gone.  While we're on the subject of selling trips and hours of service, there is another common pothole in the road to safe operation for you to be aware of - extra curricular activities.  I like to call this 'driver overtime' - it's when a driver is inevitably asked to go above and beyond a scheduled itinerary and provide extra services to a group once a trip is underway.  "Can you please take us downtown to dinner?"  Or, "Could you take us on a quick tour of the monuments at night?"  What's important here is to face reality - your drivers at some point will be asked to work overtime and their inclination will be to accommodate the customer.  After all, you've taught them that customer service is everything.  Not to mention that pleasing the customer will increase their chances of a big tip to supplement their low wage.  So here's another opportunity to schedule safety into your operations -instead of maxing a driver's drive time at the legal limit each day, consider building in a buffer so that 'overtime' requests can be met within legal limits.  Now, this doesn't have to necessarily be done every day, though expecting a driver to drive 10 hours every day is a whole other issue.  You should however do this on days of an itinerary where there is a good likelihood that extra 'services' may be requested, such as when a trip reaches a major destination or stop.  Going even further, why not foresee requests and try to incorporate extra services into written trip itineraries where possible?  And when quoting or reviewing arranged and submitted itineraries, take the time to review them carefully and suggest changes to allow for these extracurricular activities that would benefit the group's experience instead of simply quoting the submitted itinerary.  Again, you probably won't be the cheapest quote or tour in town, but you'll be a much safer and legal operation. 
            While we're on the topic of scheduling, we should touch upon a bit of physiology.  Inverted duty cycle is a fancy term for switching a work or duty cycle from one time period to another.  An example of an inverted duty cycle for a driver would be driving all day, say from 7 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, then driving through the night from midnight to 7 am.  Complicated itineraries can sometimes ask a driver to invert his duty cycles in this way, often more than once.  This is a big pothole in the road to avoid.  Inverting duty cycles is dangerous - it disrupts the internal clocks in our bodies, increasing the risk of a fatigue-related accident.  The best and safest practice is to have drivers driving during the same approximate times each day of an itinerary.  This allows them to maintain a regular rest schedule, keeping the passengers, themselves and your vehicle safer.
            Let's diverge just a bit - not from the topic of scheduling, but from the topic of safety (sort of, but not really).  Following the above considerations in terms of scheduling will not only make your operation safer, but it will also make your drivers happier.  And it's my belief that happier drivers are safer drivers.  Drivers who are treated like robots, with minimally legal and inverted schedules, will lose focus not only due to fatigue but also due to their indifference toward a demanding job for which they will feel they receive no consideration.  Conversely, if their well being is taken into consideration when planning and scheduling trips, they will be much happier and more clearly focused on performing to the expectations of the company.  Time between multi-day trips should also be considered, as those away from home for several days will need extra time to take care of personal business and visit with family. 
            Next, let's talk about a common situation found in a lot of companies - availability of drivers and the need to find drivers for trips or charters.  Dispatch/operations will often have the need to 'find' drivers for a trip, a pressure which sometimes causes poor decisions to be made when a newly hired driver is used before he has completed the training program or been fully assessed and/or qualified by the safety/training department.  This is another pothole that should be avoided.  Using a driver before he/she has been properly qualified by DOT standards is illegal.  Using a driver before those in the company responsible for training or assessing a driver's abilities has done so is risky.  Either practice exposes your operation to increased risk and liability.  To avoid these situations, develop a process in which control of new hires is limited to safety and human resource staff.  A written confirmation/release should be required from these departments in order for dispatch/operations to use a new driver.  This release should only be completed when the new hire has been properly qualified by DOT standards and completed your training or assessment process.  This discussion should also apply to situations involving remedial training.  When drivers are involved in preventable incidents, remedial training or driver re-certification should be accomplished to help the driver understand their mistake, instruct them on how to correct it, and protect the company from liability exposure if additional incidents occur in the future.  This training should be accomplished between the preventability determination and the next time the driver is dispatched.  To prevent the use of drivers who have not yet been through the remedial process procedures should be implemented so that the status and availability of a driver is clear to operations/dispatch.
            Another safety pothole results form the diverse fleets seen in many operations.  It is not uncommon for an operation to have several different makes, models, sizes and types of buses.  In fact, it's pretty much the norm.  What isn't always taken into consideration is the different vehicle dynamics associated with different units in the fleet.  Vehicle characteristics and vehicle operations can be vastly different from one piece of equipment to the next - even in similar-sized vehicles.  Often, a company's training program will train a driver on any available piece of equipment without ensuring that the driver is familiarized with, trained or assessed on each type of vehicle in the fleet.  After completing the training/assessment program and made available for dispatch, a driver may be assigned trips on types of vehicles for which he/she is unfamiliar with, both in terms of operation and vehicle characteristics.  Don't expect a driver to say anything in such a situation - their confidence in their driving ability will almost surely overpower any doubts they may have.  This situation can be especially precarious when a driver who regularly drives a smaller fleet vehicle is assigned to drive a different vehicle class, which is larger and vastly different from what they are used to operating.  To avoid these scenarios, develop processes to insure that drivers are qualified to drive each type of fleet vehicle you have, with documentation from the safety department to back it up.  It's easiest to qualify drivers on all vehicles at the time of hire so that dispatch doesn't have to wonder if drivers have been qualified on certain vehicles.  If you acquire a totally new make/model/size of fleet vehicle, be sure to qualify all drivers on that vehicle prior to dispatching them on a trip using the new vehicle.
            Switching perspectives yet again, we'll move onto maintenance and associated potholes which can challenge safe operations.  Most operations have a sound and regular maintenance program necessary to keep the vehicles operating safely.  However, the interaction between maintenance and scheduling, or lack thereof, can sometimes compromise safe operations.  Just as the safety department should have the ability to remove a driver from service/dispatch, the maintenance department should have the ability to remove a coach from service/dispatch.  It goes without saying (hopefully!) that, if a driver reports a serious safety defect on a post-trip inspection report that a vehicle should not be used/dispatched until that repair is made.  However, in busy times, it is not unusual for dispatch to keep a bus scheduled without considering allowance for preventative maintenance operations.  While preventative maintenance services are routinely 'stretched' beyond the schedule to accommodate busy periods, they should not be stretched too far from the regular schedule.  A system should be in place where maintenance has the ability to effectively remove a vehicle from availability without question, whether expected or unexpected (this is where the idea of a decent spare comes in!).  It's reasonable to assume this is the case, though it's not in some operations.  There are ways to work around this scenario - such as having an overnight maintenance shift where a lot of the PM work can be performed without interrupting busy schedules.  In any case, there should be a definitive hierarchy where maintenance can, in necessary situations and without pressure to do otherwise, remove a coach from service to insure maintenance needs are met before the coach is dispatched again.
            When things are bad, Murphy's law says they could get worse.  This law applies to situations where you experience problems with a vehicle while it's dispatched on a trip.  That is why it's imperative that you have good communication and cooperation between dispatch and maintenance.  If a driver experiences problems with a vehicle while on a trip, the first thing he/she is taught to do is call in to dispatch to report the issue.  While that first step is clear, the next step probably is a little less certain, though it shouldn't be!  There are many, well-documented situations where, in step two, the dispatcher all of a sudden became a qualified mechanic and told the driver what to do next.  Problem is, the dispatcher most likely isn't qualified to make this decision alone.  Vehicles are complicated pieces of equipment, and the more sophisticated they are, the more complicated they are.  The decision on how to proceed when there is a vehicle issue needs to incorporate the expertise of a qualified service technician.  A decision by the dispatcher to "limp it to the next exit" or "limp it home" may mean the difference between a speed bump and a catastrophic event.  A good example of this is when a coach with a turbo-charger failure continues to be driven, resulting in a devastating coach fire.  Upon report of coach trouble, a dispatcher would think the best thing to do was to keep the bus going to the next stopping opportunity, though a mechanic would have recognized the symptoms and knew the coach should not be driven further.  Bottom line - there needs to be involvement of service professionals in any decisions regarding what to do when a driver reports problems with a vehicle while under dispatch.
            Last, but very important - the idea of safe operation needs to be ingrained in the culture of your company and not just something you put on your website.  Many of these potholes discussed are aftermaths of hitting the all-time biggest pothole - management focusing on operations instead of safe operations.  The cost of one accident caused by the loss of focus on safe operations will cost you much, much more than you could have made by looking the other way.  Sure, the fly-by-night operator may focus just on operating - but he won't make it in the long run.  No one can, because operating in that way will always catch up with you.  Incorporating safety into all aspects of operations needs to be the message from top management, and a message that needs to be reinforced through positive reinforcement when it is, and through consequences when it isn't.  Taking the other route only get you to the next section of roadway - where there are more potholes waiting.