Rowan Fitzgerald was just seven years old when he was killed in a horrific bus crash. The boy, excited to be going out for the day, had been travelling with his cousin, uncle and grandfather on the top deck of a Stagecoach bus, when it careered off the road and crashed into a Coventry shopping centre in October 2015.
Dora Hancox, a 76-year-old great-grandmother from Nuneaton, was also killed when the bus ploughed into the Sainsbury’s building. More people could have been seriously injured if not for the actions of bystander Teil Portlock, who shouted for the unsuspecting crowd to “run”.
In the subsequent court case, it emerged driver Kailash Chander had mistakenly hit the accelerator instead of the brake. He had also been working three consecutive 75-hour weeks.
Chander, then in his 70s, was diagnosed with dementia after the crash and deemed unfit to enter a plea or trial, but received a two-year medical examination order.
Nearly four years later, the Fitzgerald family have found themselves at the centre of a bill to restrict working hours for bus drivers. Informally called ‘Rowan’s Law’, the move would see bus drivers follow the same rules as HGV drivers, which imposes limits of 56 hours per week, and no more than 90 hours over two weeks.
The family told HuffPost UK that if the proposal had been in place, “then perhaps our beautiful boy Rowan Fitzgerald, and the pedestrian, Mrs Dora Hancox, who were both killed in this tragic bus crash, would be alive today”.
MP Matt Western has been working with Rowan’s family since late last year on the issue.
“Our laws around working hours for local bus drivers clearly aren’t keeping the public safe and it’s time to legislate to make sure another two people aren’t killed the next time a bus driver is asked to work too many hours than is safe,” he told HuffPost UK.
He called on MPs who have been selected to bring forward their own laws to parliament in private member’s bills this week to use the opportunity to beef up legislation.
“With the new parliamentary session underway, MPs have an opportunity to table this change in the law to be debated and eventually legislated,” he said.
“I would urge any of the MPs who have been selected for a private member’s bill that they propose Rowan’s Law, so we can make a step change in bus safety for all passengers and drivers alike.”
A number of bus drivers, working and retired, have joined in on their calls to change the system.
Among them is bus driver Michael Redmond, who operated Arriva and Stagecoach buses for 40 years – “a lifetime,” he says, before retiring early after he could no longer manage the 12-hour days.
Now 61, Redmond left after being “disgusted” with the working practices in the industry, and after the job – with an unhealthy combination of long hours, time pressures and environmental factors – took a toll on his mental and physical health.
He blames bus companies putting profit over its people, which results in safety not being prioritised.
“I think the whole problem goes back to when the government deregulated bus services in 1986, they were taken out of the control of local councils and now we’ve got this private system, with private operators taking charge of the system,” he told HuffPost UK.
Under the Transport Act 1985, Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated and privatised bus services throughout the UK except throughout Greater London. The move came into effect in October 1986.
This is the point at which things “took a turn for the worse”, in Redmond’s view. Not only is he calling for a reduction in hours, but for buses to be brought back under government control.
“It went from being a public service to a private run, profit-making service. All these bus companies are interested in now is making profit.
According to lawsregulating bus driving hours on routes smaller than 50km, workers cannot drive for longer than 10 hours a day. There is no limit across one week or a fortnight, except that drivers must have at least 24 hours off duty within two consecutive weeks.
Redmond’s frustration led to him contacting Warwick and Leamington MP Matt Western, as well as the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency in December last year.
“I believe that the working practices of this company, particularly the hours it expects its drivers to work has contributed to this incident and I have no doubt that such an incident is highly likely to happen again if the situation is not changed,” he wrote in the email.
Redmond, who had worked for Arriva for most of his career, spent just a few weeks at Stagecoach, before quitting when he said that management would not allow him to work part time after he says he realised the shifts were “bad”.
Before that, he says he was essentially made to work 12-hour days, which would leave him with little time to recover between shifts and put him under “considerable stress”.
He told HuffPost UK: “I worked for them for about a month. After that, I thought that the shifts were too long. So I went in to see the manager and I said to her: look, I can’t handle these shifts. They’re too long. Is there any chance that I can work part time for you?
“And her answer was a straight ‘no’. That was it.”
He let his licence expire when he was 60.
“The environment that you’re in, especially if you’re in a big city like Liverpool or London, is heavy, dense traffic all day,” he said. “And you have to be alert in that type of traffic. If you are overworked and overtired, that’s surely going to have an impact on the way you drive, isn’t it?”
You don’t feel part of a team. You just feel you’re an object to be overworkedMichael Redmond
Last September, Rowan’s family accused Midland Red South – part of the Stagecoach Group – of “total stupidity” for allowing “someone of that age and with such a poor employment record” to drive for a lengthy period.
Midland Red South admitted health and safety breaches and were fined £2.3m. In an accompanying statement last November, managing director Phil Medlicott apologised and said the company was learning lessons to ensure “this kind of accident does not happen again”.
“There were failures at an operational level in driver supervision and we deeply regret the opportunities that were missed to act decisively on emerging warning signs.”
Medlicott added: “We have put in place stronger measures to control working hours and have improved communications with our operational teams. We have also provided additional training to all drivers and strengthened the application of our accident reduction processes.”
He said his company supports a review around how age discrimination laws impacts roles with “key safety considerations”, including a potential statutory maximum legal age limit for bus drivers.
“Our parent company, Stagecoach, is working with our industry partners to establish a consistent approach by government on these issues.”
Jim Moran works for Arriva in the north east and is a union rep for Unite in the region.
For him, it is the 5.5-hour driving shifts and the way that they are spaced out, which can lead to extra hours being racked up.
Moran has been working for around 20 years as a bus driver, and spoke of the mental exhaustion that accumulates after working what comes to 16-hour shifts.
“Traffic has gone up, the requirements of driving standards have gone up...someone falls off a seat and the first person they look to blame is the driver, whether it’s the driver’s fault or not. I’m not saying we’re always innocent, but at the same time we’re not always guilty.
“The mental fatigue is heightened because of the requirements you get drilled into you by the company: you must observe this, you must observe that...you don’t feel like you can ever switch off.”
You resent coming to work
He says drivers are up against time constraints. “Once you’ve fallen behind, you’re up against the constraints.
“If you multiply that over weeks, months and years builds up resentment and you resent coming to work.
So what would he tell the Department for Transport, if he had the chance to meet with them?
“People have all manner of problems with things like sciatica. And those sorts of challenges. We eat mostly pocket food, that’s why we’re all a funny shape and round. Our facilities and depots now are negligible compared to what they once were.”
Rowan’s family met transport minister Nusrat Ghani on Tuesday 7 May to ask for restriction to bus driver working hours.
Their campaign has been bolstered by MP Matt Western, who also launched a petition addressed to Ghani, in hopes that restrictions can be introduced.
With little sign that things might change imminently, where will the campaign go next?
“While the minister did not commit to change the law at this time, we will continue to make the argument that there should be tighter restrictions on bus drivers’ hours,” the family told HuffPost UK.
A Stagecoach spokesperson said the company brought in additional controls around working hours following the Coventry crash, while taking steps to improve work patterns and boost training and health checks for drivers.
The firm said it has “a significantly more robust safety regime than is required by law”.
The spokesperson added: “None of us at our company will ever forget the terrible events in Coventry on October 3 2015. We are deeply sorry for what happened and our thoughts remain with everyone affected, particularly the families of Rowan Fitzgerald and Dora Hancox.
“Safety is and always will be our first concern and we take our responsibilities extremely seriously. This accident is not representative of the safety culture across our business and there has never been any suggestion that we are anything other than fully compliant with the regulations around working time and driver hours across any of our bus companies.
“We will continue to work in partnership with the wider bus industry and government to further improve safety systems and appropriate regulation in the interests of customers, employees and the public.”
A spokesperson for Arriva UK Bus said: “Drivers’ working hours is an important issue and one that we, across Arriva UK Bus, take extremely seriously. We are constantly looking for ways to enhance our already robust procedures, training and monitoring systems to ensure we protect the wellbeing and safety of our drivers, passengers and other road users.”
CPT UK, the trade association representing bus and coach operators, said the industry had “in recent years” brought in measures to improve safety.”
Its operations director Keith McNally said: “These include software to allocate work, processes providing real-time monitoring and compliance with drivers’ hours regulations, driver profiling systems analysing data and identifying potential risks, and enhanced training modules covering fatigue management and other safety matters.
“In addition, bus operators have introduced enhanced medical checks, in-service human observations, dash cams and telematics systems which detect signs of fatigue and raise real-time alerts.”