Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Expressing our horror is not good enough

WE have said it before. And we will say it again. For Malaysians to continue with their lackadaisical attitude towards matters of life and death on our roads is to continue to let more people die in vain.

On the evening of Oct 10, a tragic accident occurred on the North-South Expressway at Simpang Ampat near the Negri Sembilan-Malacca border involving an express bus heading north and five other vehicles coming from the opposite direction.

These are the 12 lives lost, eight of whom are under the age of 25, of which five will never celebrate their 21st birthday.

Remember these names: Muhammad Farizuddin Talib, 19; Azizi Ajis, 20; Norazmi Abdul Karim, 24; Sharene Sofia Fadzry Tan, 18; Nur Shapika Baba, 19; Ng Sok Kuan, 52; Pang Shi Moei, 57; Goo Chuan Heng, 34; and the three from Myanmar, Kam Khaw Tuai, 19, Pau Khan Tual, 21, and Cin Thawn Tuang, 21 and R. Ramachandra, 52. Let us not treat them as mere statistics but as real people with families and friends. And let not the tears of their loved ones be for nothing.

The blame game is being played, and there is a familiar refrain to all the comments made so far. So what are we to do? Let us bear in mind that a skeptical public will not be easily convinced because there is a strong negative perception of how serious we are in addressing this issue.

When initial eye-witness accounts claimed the express bus driver was speeding, the immediate response was: “Did the driver have a record? Was he on drugs? Had he been at the wheel for more than eight hours that day?”

That these questions are even being asked reveals that we are all too familiar with the scenario whereby after an accident, we learn to our horror that the driver had a string of summonses to his name and was not fit to even drive his own car, let alone be entrusted with ferrying so many people from one destination to another.

But in this case, the driver apparently had a clean record. And so the cynic in us asks: “Well, it’s just that he had never been caught before!”

To be fair, let us not be drawn into a debate that is premised more on the emotion of the day rather than what the hard facts will reveal after a proper investigation.

But still, we must pose some serious questions for all parties to address and to take remedial action.

To the bus operators: Are your vehicles in tip-top condition? Are all your drivers in good health and mentally prepared to take the long journeys? Are you paying fair wages and offering good working conditions? Do you limit the number of trips your driver can make per day and the number of days he can drive consecutively?

To the enforcement authorities, in particular, the Road Transport Department (JPJ) and Puspakom: Are you checking that all safety requirements are adhered to? Are you ensuring that all the drivers are certified fit to drive and have undergone the necessary tests? Have all the operators undergone the Safety, Health and Environmental Management (SHE) course?

To the licensing authority, the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board: Are you checking on the records of the operators before renewing their operating permits? Do you ensure that the drivers do not have criminal records or traffic summonses?

To the highway operators: Are there safety issues with regard to the highways you manage? Must killer stretches remain or are there ways to make them safe? What are the conditions of the guardrails that divide the two directions of traffic? What is the quality of your maintenance and upgrading work?

To the lawmakers: Make it mandatory for speed-limiting devices and passenger seat belts to be installed on all express buses. Limit the number of hours a driver can be at the wheel, and for journeys exceeding, say four hours, make it mandatory for a second driver to be on board. Set a minimum wage for the drivers and ensure reasonable working conditions.

Increase the penalties, not only on the drivers, but also on the operators. The onus must be on the operators to maintain a reliable fleet of buses and drivers.

All accidents and infringements must be faithfully tabulated and the operator be stopped from operating when the number of points reaches a certain level. Businesses understand the bottom line so we must have the political will to hit them where it hurts the most.

Read the names again and tell yourself that if the necessary steps are not taken, your loved ones may one day be on such a list.

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