Too many man-made tragedies

THE "Ring of Fire" is a particular stretch on the world map where countries that lie within it are prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and others, often leaving behind a huge loss of lives.

Fortunately, Malaysia is not in this zone but unfortunately we have too many man-made tragedies. The past 45 days or so have been particularly gruesome.

On Sept 14, another fire at a Tahfiz religious school smack in the centre of Kuala Lumpur killed 23 people, mostly young boys.

This tragedy could have been prevented after so many such fires in similar schools but for the fact that the safety aspects have never been a priority for their administrators.

Then 10 days ago, eight women died near the Juru toll plaza in Penang when their factory bus parked by the roadside was hit by a second bus.

The grief for the Tahfiz schoolboys aged between 11 and 17 who died in the fire was so overpowering that the next day when they were buried, hundreds of people turned up in what I would say was the biggest crowd in any funeral that I have seen.

Just four days after the bus crash, nine people travelling in a van were killed when their vehicle collided with a lorry in Tapah, Perak.

Close to 7,000 people die in road accidents yearly in Malaysia and the statistics get grimmer every year.

In terms of population, our road deaths are one of the highest in the world.

Added to this are the crimes taking place in our midst which have also cost so many victims and loss of lives.

Some of these are too gory for me to write here but their stories can be read on Google.

At least for road tragedies, everyone must revisit the ways and means and the roles in which they can make a difference in bringing down their incidence.

A dedicated Road Safety Department was created in recent years but its effectiveness is highly questionable going by the road carnage that we see.

One is tempted to ask what are the department's key performance indicators?

For example, most of those killed in road accidents are motorcyclists but what is the department proactively doing about this?

The then minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, was quoted as saying some years ago that the government lost about RM10 billion annually from the number of people killed on the road.

Most of the victims are in the productive age group of between 15 and 30 years and each death costs RM1.43 million, calculated from the date of birth, the cost of education and healthcare.

This excludes the huge sum paid out by insurance companies.

The Social Security Organisation (Socso) has to fork our about RM2 billion a year as compensation for work-related accidents, a major portion of which went to motorcycle-related deaths.

I am disappointed that a proposal I informally presented to a previous director-general of this department for a speed limit for motorcycles has not been picked up.

I made the suggestion after a visit to Hanoi where I observed there were more motorcycles than in the Klang Valley but it's amazing to see the Vietnamese riding their bikes in a disciplined manner.

They do this also in a bigger and more congested city like Jakarta where no one as I have observed on so many occasions, beats the red light as our riders do.

Most of our motorcyclists speed and tend to zig-zag in between cars although strictly speaking, they are mere inches away from death.

Studies have shown that the chances of getting killed in motorcycle crashes can be lowered by as much as 80% if the speed limit is reduced to say, just 60kph.

Motorcyclists who read this might laugh it off as unreasonable but wait a minute; Remember the Malay proverb "biar lambat asal selamat" (better safe than sorry).

I want to drive home this point because I can safely say that virtually 90% of motorcyclists on our roads are Malays.

Because of this, motorcycles are a major source for the loss of lives among Malay youth.

Another proposal I have made in this column several times over the years is for dedicated motorcycle lanes where the two-wheelers on highways don't come into contact with cars and other bigger vehicles.

I have been waiting for many years for this to be included in a budget announcement but it has yet to come.

But instead we read last week of a proposal by the Transport Ministry for a vehicle lifespan policy.

Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said this after the bus crash that killed eight people in Penang where one of the buses was 32 years old.

Here again, we seem to be barking up the wrong tree.

Most if not all crashes are due to human error and not mechanical failure.

Falling asleep while driving is a major cause and even if that ill-fated bus had been brand new, that tragedy would still happen if the driver had been reckless, sleepy, intoxicated or high on drugs.

It had nothing to do with the condition of the bus. If it had been not roadworthy, it wouldn't move in the first place.

But nowhere in any of the highways in the country – we probably have among the longest highway networks in the world – do we see any billboard with the words "If you are sleepy, don't drive".

Can such signs be put up at strategic points, please?

So the ministry has to rethink the move to take ageing vehicles off the road and get its priorities right for the sake of road safety.

And officers at the Road Safety Department need to do some out-of-the-box thinking and not be satisfied with the business as usual approach which has proved futile.

Let's do something more effective to save lives especially the motorcyclists.