Tour bus drivers fighting sleepiness

Tour bus services at discounted rates continue to be popular with tourists and people visiting their hometowns during the Golden Week holiday, even after the recent accident on the Kanetsu Expressway that left seven people dead.

Although some people voiced concerns about accidents, crowds continued to line up at bus stops in Tokyo for the low fares and convenience.

However, underscoring such concerns, drivers of long-distance buses say they frequently have to fight off the urge to sleep while on the road.

"I thought an accident like that might happen some day," a 33-year-old bus driver told The Yomiuri Shimbun early Wednesday morning in the Hanyu Parking Area of the Tohoku Expressway in Hanyu, Saitama Prefecture.

"I'm really scared to drive at night, especially when I drive alone," he said. The driver was en route from Sendai to Tokyo Disney Resort in Chiba Prefecture.

He and his fellow driver take turns at the wheel every 90 minutes to two hours. If the one driving is unable to fight off sleepiness, they switch earlier than scheduled or stop the bus.

To stay alert they also chat and stimulate their bodies by chewing gum or sucking candy.

Tuesday night near Tokyo Station, a 38-year-old bus driver who was departing for the Shikoku region said he fights off sleepiness by engaging in physical activity, even for a short time.

"If I feel sleepy, I always stop my bus. If it's an ordinary road, I get out of the bus and pretend to check the tires with a hammer," he said.

The drivers said that recently, the number of stops the buses make has increased because of requests by travel companies.

One of the drivers said his break time was shortened because the number of location for passengers to board or disembark rose from five to nine.

"If I'm told to do so, I have to do that. But I want bus companies also to reexamine our break time in the wake of the accident," he said.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on Tuesday at a corner of a commercial building in Tokyo's Marunouchi district, tour buses began forming lines on the shoulder of the road.

Between 9 p.m. and about 11 p.m., a maximum of six to seven buses were lined up in a row at a time.

One was a long-distance bus scheduled to depart for Osaka at 10:30 p.m. The fare was 3,500 yen (S$54), less than a quarter of the 14,250 yen (S$221) it would cost for a one-way trip in a reserved seat on a Shinkansen bullet train.

A 23-year-old company employee from Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture, who was waiting for the bus said he used the service to visit his girlfriend in Tokyo.

"Though she told me it would be better to avoid using the bus service, I don't think there's a risk because there are two drivers on each bus. Also, the fare is extremely low."

Shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday near Tokyo Station's Yaesu Chuo exit, tour buses were lined up for more than 200 meters on a road with stops for local routes on the opposite shoulder.

Sidewalks in the area were designated as meeting points for passengers. But as many similar-size buses stopped there, some people found themselves lining up for the wrong bus.

Shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday, a 48-year-old company employee from Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, at Ashigara Service Area of Tomei Expressway in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, said he changed where he sat on the bus following the accident.

"As many of the fatalities in the accident in Gunma Prefecture were in seats opposite the driver's side, I purposely chose a seat on the same side as the driver," he said.