High Accident Rate of New Buses Raises Concern in Cuba
By: Norge Martinez Montero
"We need the best drivers in the country to be the ones who drive the new Yutong buses we are buying. They are excellent vehicles and we have to take care of them."
President Fidel Castro said these words on February 16, 2006 at the Ministry of Transport during the official ceremony for delivery of 246 new Chinese buses that are now being used in the inter-provincial transportation.
Prior to that, the leader of the Cuban Revolution expressed his concern about the careful selection and preparation of approximately 400 drivers to drive the new buses.
Nevertheless, the numbers show that Fidels instructions were not carefully followed by both some transportation managers and drivers, who in a very short time were experiencing accidents that brought grief to several Cuban homes.
Over the last 17 months the modern Yutong buses were involved in 437 accidents. That number means that, on average, 25 Yutongs a month are in accidents, and that every 1.2 days one is involved in a collision.
Specialists said that if this tendency continues, in less than two years, around a thousand of these buses will have been in a collision.
"From July 2005 to late 2006, 437 accidents involving Yutongs took place. Out of that total, 313 can be classified as minor, 88 as less serious, 11 as serious and 25 as catastrophic," said Pedro Beltran, specialist in transport operation at the headquarters of the Association of Bus Transportation (ASTRO in Spanish). These incidents resulted in 23 deaths and 110 injured, said the official.
The inappropriate infrastructure of many transportation centers in the country is another factor for the incidence of accidents.
"These buses are designed to travel on wide avenues and streets, and sometimes they have to travel in narrow spaces. In addition, Cuban bus stations dont have appropriate conditions for drivers to manoeuvre safely," said Pedro Beltran.
According to a report by the National Direction of Transportation, the provinces with the highest incidence of accidents are those of Camaguey, Las Tunas and Holguin. They have had a total of 48 accidents in which a total of ten people were killed.
THE NEW BUSES DRIVE WELL
"These new buses are really strong; they are comfortable and are sometimes equipped with bathrooms, depending on the distance of their route. They are excellent and have been undergoing testing since the first 200 arrived," said President Fidel Castro at the ceremony on February 16, 2006.
This opinion is shared by the drivers of the modern vans, who also add that they are easy to drive vehicles, with advantages no other buses in the country have.
"The buses have an excellent braking system; lights and air conditioning, and are a very safe means of transportation. The rest depends on the driver," says Eugenio Bernal, the driver of bus 2659 working for Cubadeportes in Havana.
Rafael Silverio and Antonio Rodriguez, drivers of bus 2982, share Bernals point of view. "They are not hard to drive when we follow the rules, but if we violate them we can cause accidents."
A survey by JR of a dozen Yutong drivers who cover different routes showed the positive assessment they have of the technical conditions of these vehicles and their possibilities of manoeuvring in the difficult conditions on the highways of the country.
"The Yutong is a light and magnificent vehicle. It even has a type of brakes for wet surfaces. Its not like other vehicles that can turn over if you stop at too high a speed," said Gualberto Lopez, driver of bus 1250.
"This vehicle is a jewel. Everything works. Technically, its a great vehicle. All one has to know is how to treat it and pay attention to the wheel to avoid accidents," said Manuel Vasallo, Gualbertos co-worker.
For Santiago Paz, driver of bus 2696 that covers the Havana-Pinar route, the Yutong is the best bus he has worked with in his 40 years in the profession. "They are almost perfect," he said.
Therefore, if Yutong buses are vehicles technically well-equipped and even easy to drive, why are they involved in so many accidents?
The answer seems to be with the drivers themselves. "Most of the accidents in which these vehicles have been involved are caused by negligence on the part of drivers who violates what is established in the traffic code," said the interviewees.
PROBLEMS BEHIND THE WHEEL
"The selection of the personnel to drive these buses wasnt the best. There are territories like Holguin where we have ten buses which are not in operation because we couldnt find drives who met the requirements of the job," says Roberto Ricardo Marrero, vice-minister of transportation.
"The first selection was really good, but then a large number of buses arrived in the country and we had to look for drivers for all of them. It meant that some provinces made mistakes in the selection process," said the vice-minister.
Despite the number of accidents in which these buses have been involved, none of them have been taken out of commission for that reason, said Marrero.
All the drivers interviewed agreed that they received training before they started to drive the Yutongs. Nonetheless, the accidents show that the preparation was not the best.
"Reality proved that the classes we were giving to the new drivers were not perfect, thats why we decided to change it to achieve the necessary preparedness and to reduce the number of incidents," explained engineer Rafael Leiva, vice-director of Human Resources of the ASTRO company.
"The new course has 80 hours of theoretical classes, double the hours of the previous one, and up to 180 days for a driver to learn in a practical way all the necessary elements. Its a course that is harder and where the contenders should demonstrate they are ready to drive these buses," said the engineer.
The new program for training the drivers has already began in several provinces of the country, but according to the drivers there are other deficiencies that have to be solved to keep the vehicles at their best.
For driver Gualberto Lopez, it is also necessary that there be more rest time between journeys, "A driver goes from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, and arrives at 10:30 in the morning. While he can have lunch, take a bath and do a few tasks related to his job, he only has a few hours left to rest because that same day "at 7:00 p.m." he has to return to Havana."
In order to change the current situation with transportation, the country has planned to buy 200 articulated Chinese buses, 50 second-hand Mercedes Benz and 344 for transportation of students starting this year, according to an announcement made by Jorge Luis Sierra Cruz, minister of transportation. At the last session of the Parliament, he referred to this and other deficiencies and the way they are being addressed.
Nevertheless, all this effort will be in vain if the personnel in charge of driving these vehicles do not receive the appropriate training and discipline. To fail to do so will be a mistake the country cannot afford.
Source: Juventud Rebelde