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IOWA CITY, Iowa - Megabus, a low-cost bus company that serves Iowa City and Des Moines, ranks near the bottom of all motor carriers for driver fatigue, a condition that has similar effects to drunken driving.
Although the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives Megabus its highest safety score of "satisfactory," the company's poor driver fatigue score – unmatched by other local bus lines – has caused concern about the carrier known for double-decker buses and ultra-cheap fares.
"It's disturbing," said Matt Starns, a University of Iowa junior from St. Paul, Minnesota, who has taken four trips on Megabus. "I certainly don't want to take a bus when the driver is about to fall asleep."
Chicago-based Megabus, which has 50 buses and 150 drivers who have logged 9.1 million miles so far this year, scored a 78.9 percent in driver fatigue from the motor carrier safety administration, which collects state and federal enforcement data.
This means Megabus's fatigue record is worse than 78.9 percent of 19,636 motor carriers.
When compared with 345 passenger carriers, Megabus ranked in the bottom 8 percent for driver fatigue with only 27 carriers with worse scores.
Megabus popular with students
Megabus, owned by Coach USA, caters to college students and young professionals with fares as low as $1.
"The free wi-fi and power outlets with the college community are very popular," said Mike Alvich, vice president for marketing and public relations for Megabus.
Launched in Chicago in 2006, Megabus serves 100 cities nationwide. The company added Iowa City and Des Moines in May 2010.
Bright blue buses picked up several loads of UI students heading home last week for Thanksgiving break and will likely bring those students back to campus today. Alvich says parents have expressed gratitude for Megabus's safe and affordable transportation.
It's true buses are safer than cars.
Transit buses had .04 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles in 2007-2009, which is less than one-tenth the .6 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles in cars, according to the National Safety Council's 2012 Injury Facts.
But bus accidents tend to grab headlines.
In August, a Megabus bus carrying about 70 passengers skidded into an overpass pillar near Litchfield, Illinois, killing a University of Missouri student and injuring dozens of other passengers. A few days later, another Megabus driver struck and killed an elderly woman in a Chicago crosswalk.
In Iowa City, a driverless Megabus with 23 passengers aboard rolled across one of downtown's busiest intersections and struck a traffic signal on July 28. No one was injured and no charges were filed.
"The driver had not set the parking brake," Alvich said. "We have retrained that driver and he is still working for us."
Fatigue does not appear to be involved in any of the recent Megabus crashes.
However, the National Transportation Safety Board found fatigue and speed led to a March 2011 bus crash in the Bronx, New York, that killed 15 people. Investigators determined the World Wide Travel driver hadn't had significant sleep for three days before the crash.
Driving limits balance safety, drivers' livelihood
The federal government limits bus and truck drivers to 10 hours of driving before eight hours of rest. Drivers are required to log driving hours and stops.
"The biggest problem is that drivers get lazy and don't complete their paperwork in a timely manner," said Maj. Ned Lewis with the Iowa Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Enforcement.
But in 5 percent to 7 percent of DOT inspections, motor carriers have serious log violations, such as falsifying records, Lewis said. He sees this more with truck drivers, who get paid per load and per mile.
With bus drivers, "you see the same pressure in terms of schedules," Lewis said. "They get very close and push a driver to a limit."
Megabus drivers have had six log violations since August 2010, four speeding citations and several other moving violations. A Megabus driver was convicted of drunken driving after the Iowa State Patrol spotted him weaving on Interstate 80 while carrying 77 passengers from Chicago to Iowa City in October 2011.
Megabus requires drivers to take nine hours of rest between shifts, which is one hour more than the federal standard, Alvich said. Megabus also assigns two drivers to overnight routes.
"Nothing we do encourages drivers to drive too many hours," Alvich said.
He characterized most of Megabus's log violations since 2010 as administrative errors and said the company is working to make sure drivers understand the rules. Megabus is also considering an electronic system that would automatically log miles through GPS, Alvich said.
Drowsy driving involved in hundreds of fatalities each year
Sixty percent of adult drivers surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation in 2005 said they had driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year. More than one-third – 103 million people – reported having fallen asleep at the wheel.
Drowsy driving was involved in 2.5 percent of police-reported fatal crashes from 2005 to 2009, according to the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration.
Tim Brown, an associate research scientist at the UI's National Advanced Driving Simulator, has studied the effects of drowsy driving.
"We've done some work looking at alcohol and drowsiness," Brown said. "They tend to impair the same sorts of vehicle controls, but they do it in different ways."
Drunk drivers have a consistent level of poor performance, while drowsy drivers have periods in which their driving degrades, followed by bursts of hyper vigilance after realizing they dozed off, Brown said.
There is more at stake when a trucker or bus driver drives drowsy, Brown said.
"Those are huge vehicles and there's danger to other people on the roadway and there's danger to the drivers themselves and, in the case of bus drivers, also passengers," he said.
Other carriers have better safety records
The federal government scores motor carriers on seven safety categories. Megabus scored a 32.8 on unsafe driving and 15.9 percent in vehicle maintenance. Driver fatigue is the only area that triggered additional compliance reviews from the government.
None of the other major bus lines that serve Iowa scored as poorly as Megabus.
Greyhound, which has 1,420 vehicles and 2,720 drivers who logged 138 million miles in 2011, had its worst score of 47 percent in driver fitness, which measures whether drivers are qualified. This means Greyhound's driver fitness record is better than half of the carriers on the road.
Greyhound serves 28 Iowa Cities, including Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.
Burlington Trailways, which serves 21 Iowa cities, has 36 vehicles and 63 drivers who drove 3.3 million miles in 2011. The company's worst score was 9.8 percent in vehicle maintenance. Burlington Trailways had no violations in the past two years in driver fatigue, driver fitness or alcohol/controlled substances.