Know more about the city's transportation system in the weekly column 'Roads and Rails'.

Leaving his home in Kolathur at 4.30 a.m. on most days, P. Kottaisamy takes a share autorickshaw or pays Rs.10 to a vegetable truck headed towards CMBT to reach the Anna Nagar bus depot. He gets into the driver's seat of 15B (CMBT to Broadway) around 5 a.m. He has been an MTC bus driver for the past 23 years.

In the next eight hours, he will have to complete eight single trips. The congested roads, constant pressure to complete each trip within the stipulated time and repeated arguments with commuters makes his job no easier. Many drivers work overtime to complete the mandatory eight trips. Unable to cope with the stress, many even stop coming to work.

Not many know about it, but the MTC actually suffers from a striking level of absenteeism. Out of the 8,900-odd drivers in its rolls, 636 are ‘missing,' which is about seven per cent of the workforce. They are on prolonged absence for more than three months.

Urban transit is a stressful job. Repeated scientific studies about the health and well-being of bus drivers show that only one in nine works until retirement age. Hypertension among drivers is much higher than sample groups and absenteeism is about two to three times more than the national average of organised workforce.

A senior MTC official said that there have been cases when a driver turns up after two-and-a-half years with a medical certificate claiming illness.

“For all we know, they might have gone to Dubai to work as drivers and earned some quick money. Every time a school student falls off an overcrowded bus and dies, the absentee driver who did not ply an additional service has to be blamed,” he added.

MTC Managing Director V. Babu acknowledges that driving in city traffic is a difficult job. “But nothing can be done about it. It is the nature of the job. Congestion is a reality on certain routes, especially because of work on the Metro Rail. But we do not want to change the timing chart as no driver will agree to go back once the Metro work is completed,” he says. The need to stick to a stipulated time within which each trip has to be completed has a profound impact on accidents.

According to Chennai City Traffic Police statistics, 124 persons have been run over by MTC buses between January 1, 2009 and October 10, 2010. That is nearly 15 per cent of all the fatalities that happened on the city's roads in that period.

A. Veeraraghavan, Transportation Engineering Professor at IIT-Madras, says “Driver comfort plays an important role in accidents. Many air-conditioned bus drivers are accident free.”

V. Anand, an MTC driver with 25 years of experience, says, “If running time is 70 minutes, the driver must get at least 15 minutes of rest after that. It will bring down the number of accidents and will also help us to build a better relationship with the public.”

Since drivers want to complete the eight trips as soon as possible and go home, the time keeper at the depot asks us to fudge the timings and leave for the next service immediately, says Mr. Anand. “Sometimes, a bus along a particular route leaves the depot every two minutes. That is the reason for bunching of buses. Serving commuters doesn't seem to be the motive.”

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