Friday 16 January 2015

Unprofessional Drivers and their employers

If you want to fly a private plane there's a lot of training and testing, including regular health checkups.

If you want to fly a wide-bodied passenger jet, there's a lot more training, a lot more testing -and a lot more tracking of you and your flying skills.

Actions in a private plane that might raise a "don't do that again" comment would, for a commercial pilot, result in your license being suspended "pending investigation".

Potential health conditions would be monitored, and if any risk was felt to be present, your license revoked.

These pilots are people who have earned the right to call themselves "professional"

Airlines operate under strict regulation, including limiting the time pilots must spend in the cockpit. They actually care about this.

Airlines have schedules for flights that are designed to be feasible. They even incorporate some leeway for the inevitable things that happen: stacked planes above LHR, diversions, fog over Bristol. These may be unwelcome, but they  happen often enough that they are prepared and capable of dealing with it. No airline complains about "bad weather costs the airline industry 100M/year", unlike, say, the FTA whose members seem surprised about congestion.

Aircraft also come with preflight checklists, rigorous checks of vehicle state where the pilots are expected to walk round the entire craft inspecting everything from the engine to the tyres, then going to the cockpit and starting it in a documented process which includes looking at all the telemetry. If there is any problem they are expected to abort the flight. If a light comes on during a journey, they are expected to divert or return, rather than ignore it.

Yet this is the exact opposite of what we get for "professional" drivers and their employers. We actually have lower standards, because

  • The penalties for any driving offence are the same, be it a 1.1L fiesta or a 44 ton HGV.
  • There are stricter tests for HGV/Coach drivers, and nominally stricter medical requirements, but in the absence of any retesting, bad habits can creep in. This could be why "professional" drivers are often some of the most dangerous out there: overconfident, aggressive in their use of their (larger) vehicles.
  • Their workload often involves unrealistic schedules which can only be met in everyday traffic conditions by breaking the law.
  • The "professional" drivers can use the "I would lose my job over this" defence at any court case where they would earn penalty points.

What about companies that employ these "professional" drivers?

At the same time their employers don't seem to care

  1. They hire people for as little as they can get away with
  2. They generate the unrealistic schedules. Rush hours are not unexpected events, they happen every weekday so stop being surprised and whining about "congestion costing the UK...".
  3. They don't share any blame if one of their drivers is caught driving or texting at the wheel, speeding or driving dangerously. If there is a crash then there may be a civil lawsuit, but that is what their insurance covers.

The system needs to recognise that employers can make things better, and if not, they make things worse. Unrealistic schedules, phoning up the driver on the road, paying per load (tipper trucks), all create and amplify risk. A key one is "turning a blind eye to hours used", that is, condoning abuse of the tachometer so that they can get their freight delivered with less staff

Truck safety: brakes, tyres, windscreen wipers, lights, these are core features that, if neglected, can make a truck even more lethal. If you look at the percentage of HGVs breaking some vehicle safety requirement at police stops, it's nearly all of them.

Why do companies behave this way? They can -and it saves them money. Work your staff illegal hours and you have less staff to pay. Skimp on vehicle maintenance and again, money saved. Need to change a delivery during the day? Phone and text the drivers. Time and money saved, and if the driver reads a text on the motorway, well, "that was their decision": no blame for the company

There is no fucking way airlines would be allowed to run this way, yet trucking companies appear to do so.

And, so do coach companies.

The way TfL care only about schedules and not road safety are a key point: everyone cycling in a bus lane has to be aware that the buses trying to use them are running on unrealistic schedules based around their not being cyclists in the way, and with the company and hence the drivers penalised for being held up. That's why buses overtake you then immediately swing in: if it saves the bus a couple of seconds, that adds up.

It's also why bus companies push back against infrastructure improvements that don't appear to benefit them -or actually add a few seconds. Cycle infrastucture is a key example of this, but so are pedestrian crossings. Down in Bristol, some of the "showcase" improvements on Whiteladies road involved FirstBus" pushing to replace zebra crossings with light controlled crossings, as their timetable was impacted by the large numbers of students walking to university. That's right: lots of people on foot were an inconvenience, not something to be encouraged. In a "forward thinking green capital".

At least Bristol council sometimes cares.

In the SGloucs-managed suburbs,that doesn't happen. The councillors can't imagine anyone walking or cycling, so view bus transport as the sole viable alternative to the car. Which here in CUBA, means the Bus Rapid Transit fuckup: two attempts to convert biking/walking paths into bus lanes defeated, but BRT2 going ahead for no tangible benefit and at the expense of pedestrians in Bedminster (showcase retail area), and, as its costs overrun before building even begins, trying to use cycling money to make up for projected shortfalls. This is for the successor a project that has tried to destroy Britain's single most useful railway conversion for 8-10 buses an hour, a successor that tried to "value engineer" out all the cycling and walking facilities they'd promised to reinstate after destroying a footbridge over the Avon.

Another local example is this M5 Coach Crash. Here we have a professional coach driver who is diabetic. Nothing wrong with that as long as he follows the diabetic protocol, including checking blood sugar levels before he sets out. Do we know he does that? We don't but we do know: he appeared to fall asleep on the M5 while driving a coachful of people.

Fortunately, in this crash, nobody was injured: pure luck. A great near miss to which the government could have reacted the way they would have done to an wide-bodied commercial airline pilot in a similar situation. Revoked his license until the incident was fully understood, and, if due to a medical condition -or no other explanation could be found-, say "sorry, for the safety of the passengers and the people under your flightplath, we can't let you fly any more".

What happens for a coach driver? The driver says "I don't know what happened" and "If I lose my license I lose my job", and ends up without even any fucking penalty points, just a 50 quid fine.

This a driver, -who through luck rather than skill- avoided killing his passengers when he somehow lost conciousness at the wheel. And that is considered acceptable?

Why are the fucking safety standards for coach drivers so much lower than for airplane pilots?

There's always that claim "the most dangerous part of a flight is the drive to and from the airport". Maybe that's not because there is something inherently dangerous about the roads, but because they are full of coach drivers who are allowed to keep driving even after they crash, HGV drivers fiddling their tachographs to drive for 18 hours a day salesmen (and it is mostly men) driving their BMWs and Audis at 90 mph while they talk to their back office in their iphones.

Well, if that's the case, it's correctable: hold "professional" drivers to higher standards than amateur drivers, on the basis that if they do it for a living, for many hours every working day -they better be fucking safe to so. Instead of "I will lose my job" being a plea for lenience, it should be "you should have known better".

Equally critically: hold their employers to account. Large fines whenever one of their employees is caught in some infraction in a work vehicle should suffice. How many £1000+ fines for HGV drivers using their phone does it take for an employer to decide fitting hands-free phone systems makes more sense? How many impounded trucks with defects or tachograph abuse before they conclude that the schedules of driving and maintenance need fixing?

Only if the employers get to share the blame will the system change.

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