Safety behind the wheel

Monday looks at the distractions bus drivers face on the job

While police wait on charges for the driver of the Horizon tour bus that killed a woman on Aug. 13, Monday looks at the distractions bus drivers face.

Monday looks at the distractions bus drivers face on the job

A fatal collision between a tour bus and pedestrian in downtown Victoria earlier this month prompted calls to Monday from several readers questioning the distractions bus drivers face in having to be a tour guide and bus operator in one.

ICBC announced Tuesday, Aug. 28, that distracted driving is now the third leading cause of car crash fatalities in B.C. Despite the new cell laws for motorists, however, Stephanie Melvin, deputy superintendent of the Ministry of Justice, says there are some hand-held electronics that have complete exemptions under the distracted driving regulations: these include mobile data terminals and two-way radios licensed through Industry Canada that can used specifically by bus and taxi drivers.

“We are monitoring the effectiveness of our legislation and we will look at making changes if needed, as new technologies are introduced,” says Melvin. “People need to think twice about any behaviour they engage in that takes their eyes off the road when they are driving.”

According to Melvin, a bus driver may also use a hand-held microphone if the device is within easy reach of the driver’s seat, is not actually held in the hand and is securely fixed to the motor vehicle or worn securely on the driver’s body in a manner that does not obstruct the view — but the device must remain hands-free. Melvin did not comment on the distractions operating this type of electronics could cause, but did say the same safety applies to everyone.

“The priority for every motorist, while driving, is to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. Cell phones and other electronic devices are only part of the greater problem of distracted driving in general,” says Melvin.

Glen Christie, Victoria division manager of Horizon Coach Lines, told Monday that although Horizon’s drivers do perform the commentary of the tour at the same time as driving the bus, the driver at the time of the deadly collision on Aug. 13 was not. Christie said he would not comment at this time on whether or not he believes giving commentary distracts the drivers.

Horizon is just one of many bus companies that have been forced to amalgamate drivers’ duties with that of a tour guide due to a strained economy and industry cutbacks. Yet, despite the change in laws, bus drivers are caught in a grey area between distraction and necessity.

Big Bus Victoria Sightseeing Tour company uses another approach.

While drivers do have audio devices that allow them to offer limited commentary, 99 per cent of the company’s tours are played through pre-recorded tapes. This move, which was instated six years ago when the company began, allows for maximum safety and keeps the drivers’ eyes on the road, according to company director of marketing Colleen Irwin.

“It’s far safer for our drivers when they can just concentrate on driving and don’t have to be looking around for bikes and pedestrians, at the same time as memorizing what line to say here and what site to prompt certain facts there,” says Irwin, adding that Big Bus is the only tour bus company in Victoria that uses a recording for tours. “You have to pay such close attention during tourist season, and safety is a main priority for us.”

Cruise Victoria Services (CVS) manager Gary Gale says that his bus company has never seen an issue of distraction caused by commentary. However, he states that all drivers are given headsets and mandatory annual training.

“Most of our drivers commentate and drive at the same time, but there are an awful lot of things a driver has to be aware of out there, especially in this city where we have so many pedestrians,” says Gale. “Being a bus driver with 56-some-odd passengers is a lot of responsibility … If anyone is not attentive, everyone is put at risk.”

Gale says the August accident has already affected the tour bus industry in Victoria and “has set everyone back.” Both Horizon and BC Transit, for example, are no longer allowing buses to make turns at the busy Humboldt-Douglas intersection where 27-year-old Yuka Imaizumi was killed.

“Our hearts go out to everyone involved there, including the driver,” says Gale. “It takes a lot for a driver to get behind the wheel again after something like that.” M

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