Bus ride roulette

If anyone thought the dust was settling after last week’s horrific bus crashes that killed seven people – including four Dutch holidaymakers who had just arrived in the Algarve – they had better think again. The Resident has spoken with the vice-president of the national syndicate of drivers. “Accidents like this will become more and more frequent. We are up against a national shame,” 48-year-old Manuel Oliveira told us.

Responsible for southern Portugal and the islands, the union’s no-nonsense VP said: “Drivers these days exist in a form of modern-day slavery. They never get enough rest, and they work far too many hours.

“I travel the country all the time and I see bus staff, particularly drivers, suffering from anxiety.

“In more cases than I would care to mention, drivers have to hold down two jobs because they have a wife at home who is unemployed and children to look after.

“They are exhausted – but no-one ever checks to find out whether they are fit to drive. I could tell you of cases where drivers go to work on medication for anxiety.

“For all I know they will have self-medicated – which can carry an even greater risk, both for passengers and the drivers themselves.

“These are professional people, but they have been pushed to breaking point. They are asked to exceed their limits every day.

“Salaries are at rock bottom. We’re talking often in the region of €600-€700. As you say, it is the same as a waiter, but with no disrespect to waiters, the responsibility of these drivers to the general public is far greater.

“Some time ago, TVI carried a report on how passengers have to wake drivers up who have fallen asleep at the wheel. This is just as relevant today as it was when that report went out.

“We have drivers falling asleep at the wheel every day. We have accidents involving buses and commercial vehicles every day – and the problem is down to incompetent authorities who know perfectly well these problems exist, but just don’t want to know.

“As far as checking by the authorities goes, there is nothing,” Oliveira affirmed.

“When you consider the quantity of vehicles on the road every single day, the number that have been properly checked for roadworthiness is so negligible as to mean nothing.”

It was a damning indictment on the damage that has come in the wake of austerity.

As Oliveira explained, salaries have reduced to the point that drivers are “so desperate to hold on to their jobs, they have lost sight of what should be their rights”.

“This is where the press should come in and show the situation for what it is,” he added. “This is not a problem that is limited to any one company in the country. It is general.”

As to the inquiries promised by bus companies and police after last week’s horrors that splashed momentarily across the nation’s front pages, Oliveira was scathing.

“What on earth is the use of a report to those who lost loved-ones? I can tell you right now what the reports will say. They will all say the accidents were the fault of the drivers.

“Drivers have become the ‘part’ that is cheapest to replace on a bus. That is the way things run in this ‘República das Bananas’.”

With focus now long-waned on the two crashes that shocked the country, all stories have pointed to the drivers “feeling unwell” before losing control of their vehicles.

It was the same story in a bus accident reported on the EN125 in April. The driver is believed to have died at the wheel before plunging his vehicle into the wall of a house.

In that case, there were no other fatalities, though a number of passengers had to be treated in hospital.

But last Wednesday saw three Dutch tourists killed outright on the A22 when a Frota Azul bus ploughed into motorway crash barriers near the exit to Paderne, and then hurtled six metres into a ditch, landing on its side.

It was the largest single accident involving tourists to the Algarve since the 1992 plane crash that killed 54 in Faro – again the majority of them Dutch holidaymakers.

Today, only one of the injured remains interned at Portimão hospital and a fourth death was announced last Friday when a critically-ill passenger succumbed to her injuries.

In the wake of the accident, huge praise was given to the response by accident and emergency authorities. But the truth is that rescue workers cannot stop accidents from happening.

Within 48 hours of the Algarve crash, 30 passengers who caught the Lagos-Lisbon Renex bus on Friday afternoon were involved in another incident – this time on the A2 near Almodôvar, in the Alentejo.

Three people, including a long-time German resident, were projected from the vehicle and died of their injuries. Another 17 were injured, at least two of them requiring plastic surgery in Lisbon.

Again, reasons for the crash point to driver “indisposition”. Fifty-one-year-old Joaquim Matos is understood to have told his wife: “I couldn’t control the vehicle. It pulled to the right.”

The Resident has tried in vain to get an official response from Barraqueiro, the owning company of the buses involved in all recent accidents with fatalities, and coincidentally the transport giant whose boss Humberto Pedrosa is now part-owner of TAP Air Portugal.

But we did manage to talk to Frota Azul, the company whose bus was involved in the crash that killed the Dutch holidaymakers last Wednesday.

A spokeswoman told us: “People may be saying that drivers work too long hours, but that is up to them. We are not saying it.”

As to the inquiry that the company is reported to be undertaking, she told us: “It will not be ready any time soon.”

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]