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In the last installment of National Bus Trader, "Fatigue Monitoring Technology" presented an overview of the approaches and devices in development, and available, to prevent and detect driver fatigue. But unlike prevention technologies, fatigue detection devices raise a unique question: What happens when they work?!

Chaos and Mutiny

Easily imaginable fatigue detection scenarios illustrate the complex issues their successful applications raise:

  • With the tantalizing Manhattan skyline in sight, a motorcoach full of junior high school students traveling from Boston since 6:45 A.M. sounds an alarm. The 60-year-old driver pulls onto the toll booth, and instructs the students to be quiet for 20 minutes while he takes a nap.
  • After losing the State Championship at a weekday night baseball game three hours from home, a bunch of little leaguers and their pushy sports-dads are 15 minutes away from their home school's parking lot when their motorcoach driver pulls over and announces that she needs to call her dispatcher to summon a relief driver on-call.
  • After nearly completing its 600-mile return trip from its passengers' single night at a Biloxi casino, a motorcoach approaches the Orlando city limits when its driver announces, over the P.A. system, that the beeping sound the exhausted gamblers just heard was the driver's wrist monitor and that, as a matter of company policy, the coach must wait until the alarm fails to sound for a continuous 15-minute period.

When are not resolved by bribes, threats or behind-the-wheel takeovers (at least one misguided passenger is likely to have a commercial driver's license), these scenarios are likely to escalate into radio calls for police officers to rescue the driver. But they are certainly formulas for a set of problems possibly worse than those created by a sleepy driver.

Counter Countermeasures

As a practical matter, parties involved in the provision or arrangement of motorcoach transportation might be tempted to abuse or circumvent fatigue detection technology:

  • Drivers may be unwilling to employ the measures which triggered fatigue-detection devices require when they have almost completed their runs.
  • Mechanics may be instructed or encouraged to dismantle or override the technologies - at least for certain trips or duty cycles - including muting the audible characteristics which might be heard by the passengers, and the electronic records such alarms could generate.
  • Financially-squeezed operators or low-ballers may be unwilling to spend the money needed to equip their vehicles and/or drivers with these technologies, much less suffer the commercial consequences of the service interruptions which their use trigger - or the added expenses involved in avoiding them (e.g., such as sleepovers in hotels).
  • Travel agents may be unwilling to risk losing customers by integrating technology-supported safety monitoring into their bookings.
  • Insurance carriers may be unwilling or unable to support the technologies, e.g., by discounting premiums of carriers employing them - at least until a track record of differentiated risks has been established, along with some means of reconciling premiums with the full-vehicle-life amortization costs of the equipment.

Controlling Level Changes

As a practical matter, parties involved in the provision or arrangement of motorcoach transportation might be tempted to abuse or circumvent fatigue detection technology:

  • Drivers may be unwilling to employ the measures which triggered fatigue-detection devices require when they have almost completed their runs.
  • Mechanics may be instructed or encouraged to dismantle or override the technologies - at least for certain trips or duty cycles - including muting the audible characteristics which might be heard by the passengers, and the electronic records such alarms could generate.
  • Financially-squeezed operators or low-ballers may be unwilling to spend the money needed to equip their vehicles and/or drivers with these technologies, much less suffer the commercial consequences of the service interruptions which their use trigger - or the added expenses involved in avoiding them (e.g., such as sleepovers in hotels).
  • Travel agents may be unwilling to risk losing customers by integrating technology-supported safety monitoring into their bookings.
  • Insurance carriers may be unwilling or unable to support the technologies, e.g., by discounting premiums of carriers employing them - at least until a track record of differentiated risks has been established, along with some means of reconciling premiums with the full-vehicle-life amortization costs of the equipment.

Enforcement and Penalties

Largely because of the inducements and temptations to dismantle the equipment or undermine its articulation and recording, the use of such technology may realistically necessitate a new level of enforcement, not to mention another layer of criminal fines and penalties, which would be further complicated by the need to determine which party (Company? Driver? Mechanic?) was responsible for the violations.

While fatigue detection technology will simplify a certain aspect of law enforcement by delivering quantitatively-verifiable evidence, its costs are likely to be considerable. But the institutional burdens such technology may place on law enforcement are also challenging. Included among them are the sensitivities associated with the violators and their civil liberties. Certain questions will naturally arise:

  • Should those detected with fatigue be treated the same way as alcohol and drug offenders - particularly as some studies show fatigue to be a larger contributor to motor vehicle accidents?
  • How would penalties differ for those detected of experiencing fatigue compared to those failing to engage the requisite countermeasures? How should such penalties be modified when passengers interfere with the driver's ability to comply?
  • How would motives and intentions factor into these penalties? Drunk drivers at least have decades of well-proven expectations about the risks, whereas a professional driver may have sounder reasons to feel that he or she will and can complete a trip safely, even when tired.
  • Will offenders caught disabling or circumventing fatigue-detection devices be treated as criminals - or will they be treated much the same way as motorists employing radar to detect speed guns? How long will it take to change state laws accordingly? What is the venue of a case where dismantling the device occurred in a different state than the accident?
  • Will the fear of liability exposure encourage compliance - or will some operators simply "roll the dice," as many do with respect to other safety-related requirements and consequences?

Transfer of Risk

As a liability matter, these technologies also create some interesting liability issues. Among them is the likelihood that some companies and drivers may simply rely on them for detection rather than mitigate the factors which trigger their activation. Should an accident occur before its symptoms are detected, or simultaneously - which microsleeps or Sleep Apnea would permit - liability could shift from the operator to the manufacturer of both the vehicle and the technology. Regardless of its outcome, a lawsuit's complexity would escalate considerably, as would the costs of now defending even more parties. And the determination of liability could also become even more complex - not to mention how formulas for establishing negligence among multiple parties differ from state to state.

Ownership and Investment

Another problem relates to the proprietary nature of these technologies, and the barriers which such ownership present to their affordability and dissemination. The complexity of many technologies demands sizeable investments in their development, particularly with respect to the relatively small segment of the motoring population comprised of motorcoaches. Such considerations suggest that the development of these technologies may only become practical if application is required for the much larger trucking industry - a consideration greatly complicating decision-making for the FMCSA, especially given its recent efforts to examine different applications of regulatory mechanisms. And because reliance on such technology may shift liability from the operator to the vehicle and/or technology manufacturer, insurance premiums could price them beyond the realistic adoption by the market - at least for use on motorcoaches, where the financial consequences of serious accidents may be monumental.

The development and application of these technologies will also be laced with a litany of proprietary, investment and confidentiality issues - not to mention the sharing of common elements, such as operating systems and "building block" sub-technologies. Could some become the domain of motorcoach manufacturers - and be unavailable to their competitors? Could a break-through technology - particularly if it has widespread application to automobiles and other personal vehicles - create another leviathan corporate predator?

Disease and Cure

Notwithstanding the considerable costs for development, testing, implementation, installation and training - including the physical, management and enforcement structure needed to give many technologies meaning, and provide an environment for their usage - few would argue that these technologies will deliver the performance they promise. Despite these and numerous other problems and constraints, developing, refining and applying these technologies is relatively easy compared to the issue of what to do when they work.

In simple terms, post-episode solutions to detected fatigue are likely to be highly impractical - or at least awkward - as both a commercial and an operating reality. This suggests that the best such technologies may ever comprise is a last resort. However, their consequences will likely provide all members of the industry with strong incentives to not experience them - particularly if the technology can be engineered to avoid overrides and circumvention.

Ironically, such consequences could lead to dramatic changes throughout the entire motorcoach service spectrum. With realistic schedules and expectations of on-time trip provision, and sufficient system-based support (napping, lodging, nutrition, exercise, bio-sensitive scheduling, bio-sensitive driver assignment, teams, and sleeping berths), the industry could witness a resolution of the otherwise severe pull-and-tug dynamics which exist between the providers of motorcoach service and their agents and customers. Of course, were these dynamics more favorable to fatigue mitigation to begin with, many of the technologies cited above would be far less needed. Regardless, the use of fatigue-detection technologies could dramatically alter the costs and consequences of their prevention versus their cure. But the industry would have to follow through with both, lest the cure become worse than the disease.

Priorities and Sequences

When developing and implementing solutions to driver fatigue, one would do well to keep two broad goals in mind:

  1. Ensure that a complete spectrum of fatigue mitigation measures is available - not merely detection.
  2. Emphasize controlling the problem through preventive measures, so that detection and service disruption are rare.

If these objectives are ignored, these technologies may be resisted rather than embraced. Instead of enhancing safety for, and rewarding, the most deserving operators, the technologies' costs could become a burden which, instead, benefit those who ignore, circumvent or abuse them. Without the complete spectrum of monitoring and enforcement activities, the requirement for these technologies could thus have the effect of driving safe and compliant operators from the business while enhancing the competitive advantage of those whose removal is clearly in the public interest.

Similarly, the use of this technology also affects the issue of deregulation - since the costs for compliance will likely be unaffordable by many small companies and owner-operators and, as such, may be cited as a dynamic employed to drive them from the industry. Inversely, of course, the mandated installation and usage of such technologies could enhance deregulation, and partly mitigate its dysfunctional consequences, by imposing a mechanism strongly favoring the safest and soundest operators.

Diluting the Agenda

In politically-correct, 21st Century America, the use of such technology also runs headlong into a number of non-operating considerations and themes ranging from the right to privacy, and freedom from intrusion, to the potential for misuse and selective enforcement.

Technologies are not substitutes for setting standards. Nor are they replacements for responsible behavior. Where monitoring is already in short supply, the introduction of more technology is likely to dilute it further. Moreso, there is a considerable risk that the further obsession with digital accoutrements will create yet even more driver and management distraction and resistance, and perhaps replace other elements of sound operating practices - like reviewing drivers' logs. As with all things digital, the thematic substitution of information for knowledge has dangerous implications.

Beware of Bones

The introduction and use of technology which promises to effect dramatic improvements in motorcoach safety will not come easily or cheaply. Nor will it likely come quickly. The issues which must be resolved are scientific, commercial, economic, regulatory and political - to cite merely the most obvious. Navigating among such an arsenal of concerns and disciplines will take patience and skill. It will also require contributions from hundreds or perhaps thousands of individuals not only well-versed in science and engineering, but well-grounded in clear thinking and judgment. And it will take a lot of thought and input by the motorcoach industry's best and brightest. But the rewards are certainly enticing, even if they appear costly and elusive.

Considering the costs and risks, Federal and state agencies exploring and implementing regulations which require or encourage the use of fatigue detection technologies would do well to follow the general rule for eating fish: Chew carefully before swallowing.

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Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 350 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...

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