Looking beyond the horrific Penang Bridge car crash

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Road safety in Malaysia is like an orphan that many departments are responsible for but hardly any department wants to champion, writes Simon Tan.

The recent unfortunate incident of the white SUV plunging into the sea from Penang Bridge received so much social and traditional media coverage.

No thanks to the many gruesome and grotesque images, videos, photos and comments that went viral.

Firstly, my condolences to the victim’s family and thanks to the rescue departments who did a commendable job with the underwater search and rescue operation.

What saddens me and many road safety campaigners even more are the shocking number of road fatalities in the nation: nearly 7,000 Malaysians die on the roads annually.

Let’s say, we estimate the value of a life at a mere one million ringgit (though, of course, it is impossible to assign a monetary value to a human life). That would mean the country is losing RM7bn annually. This does not include other costs and millions of hours lost directly by rescue departments, police, medical personnel, friends, relatives and employers who have to attend to these accidents and crashes.

Sadly, many social media users were more keen to see, share and comment on the victim’s body, car wreckage and the alleged perpetrator in the Penang Bridge case.

Instead, I would like to appeal to the press and social media to highlight the appalling statistics, the lack of safety consciousness and ethics on the road and the disregard for traffic rules and regulations we see all the time. Some find it easier to blame non-living things like road barriers, road surfaces and a lack of sufficient lighting.

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In the case of the Penang Bridge accident, the possible factors may include:

  • the excessive speed of the vehicles along the Penang Bridge
  • reckless driving (overtaking on the left and racing)
  • driving under the influence
  • lack of enforcement or lack of an automated warning system

Some experts prefer to classify this incident as a car crash rather than an accident as there was little evidence that it was caused by something that could not be avoided such as a branch falling over a moving car.

Hopefully, this unfortunate incident will prompt the various authorities to step up their road safety campaign, which should run throughout the year instead of only during festive seasons. They should also tackle the root causes of injuries and deaths on Malaysian roads using what I like to call the four E’s.

Education

Road safety saves lives and should be a subject in school. Better still, road codes and safety theory should be an examination subject. Only competent drivers should be given a licence. Drivers with a good record should be allowed to renew their licences while medically unfit drivers should not be allowed. Emphasise that a driving licence is a privilege, not a right. Schools, please teach students that driving without a licence is a big no-no.

Enforcement – stricter, stricter, stricter

Increase the use of automated enforcement systems for speeding and beating red lights. Introduce flashing orange lights when the speed limit is exceeded. Use smart cameras to detect illegal parking and obstructions in yellow boxes and at bus stops.

As for the police, please don’t send the wrong message with ‘discount campaigns’. The Road Transport Department should manage a drivers’ safety record database to centralise all drivers and car ownership records from the courts, the police, local councils and its own departmental records. In this way, excessive demerit points will lead to inconvenience when renewing driving licences and vehicle road tax.

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Ethics

It will take some time to change mindsets and improve overall road safety consciousness. The authorities should dangle the carrot: good drivers should get discounts for road tax, driving licence renewals and motor insurance.

If Bank Negara can successfully run the Central Credit Reference Information System (CCRIS), which allows banks and others to view personal credit records, the Road Transport Department should be able to come up with a drivers’ safety record database.

Parliament can pass a law to open the data for public review to shame reckless drivers. Employers, would you like to employ a bad driver who frequently breaks traffic laws and pays their fines late?

Embarrassment

For certain offences, some drivers can easily afford to pay the fines. In such cases, it will be more effective to include a time penalty such as the inconvenience of recovering a car that has been towed away. Community service should be considered as another effective deterrent. For example, car drivers who block bus stops and inconvenience hundreds of bus users should be penalised with having to do community service.

Road safety in Malaysia is like an orphan that many departments are responsible for but hardly any department wants to champion. The department that suffers the most pain are the hospitals under the Ministry of Health, which have to foot the medical bills for road accident victims.

Allow me to compare and evaluate the system used in New Zealand.

In New Zealand, part of the road tax goes to the Accident Compensation Corporation, which is equivalent to our Socso. The corporation pays for the victims’ hospital bills and loss of income. Therefore it is in the corporation’s interest to promote national road safety and pressure the other departments, eg

  • the police for strict enforcement and award of demerits to bad drivers
  • local councils for good road signs and road maintenance
  • Transit NZ (equivalent to our Public Works Department) for better road designs and construction
  • Ministry of Transport (equivalent to our Road Transport Department) for car safety rules and certificates of fitness
  • AA to pass competent drivers or fail drivers who are not fit to drive.
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Road safety is the responsibility of all road users, that is you and me. We need to educate our children, friends and relatives about the value of having safer roads. We need to continually improve road safety.

Imagine how much Malaysia can save if we can reduce road deaths by just 10% a year (saving 700 lives in the first year!).

The federal government must find a parent (Socsco?) for this orphan (road safety). Look beyond the symptoms and come up with a solution (ie the four E’s) to tackle the root causes of road accidents and crashes.

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Below is feedback from Simon’s cousin who worked as Traffic Engineer in NZ
Great article. Unfortunately, Malaysia and even Singapore could not match the dedication and commitment by the Kiwis in fighting to improve road safety. When I was working in NZ, one of my early task was to go through hundreds of Invercargill past accident reports and to painstakingly categorize them into types of accident for each intersection. After that, the City Council management and an expert from Auckland went through them and suggest low cost yet effective improvement to the intersection by visiting the site. Sometimes, simple improvements like building centre median and placing Stop sign on it to improve visibility.