KUALA LUMPUR: When Transport Minister Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy switched on his handphone on arrival at London's Heathrow Airport on Nov 6 after a flight from Kuala Lumpur, one SMS gave him a shock.
It was from Road Safety Department director-general Suret Singh, who told his boss that 29 people had died in road accidents the day before in Malaysia as recorded under the police's annual two-week operation to reduce road fatalities during the festive season.
The death toll on that particular day during the last Hari Raya season was the highest since Ops Sikap was launched in 2001.
Ops Sikap replaced Ops Statik, which was started in 1997. Suret makes it a point to SMS the daily fatality figures to Chan during such an operation.
What shocked Chan was that it was much higher than the daily average of 17 deaths registered over the last few years, a figure which means that between 6,200 and 6,300 people die every year in road accidents in the country.
Chan readily admits that bringing down the number of road fatalities is his most difficult task and biggest challenge as Transport minister, simply because of the tremendous odds against achieving this objective.
"When I became Transport Minister two-and-a-half years ago, I thought the biggest challenge was to build ports and airports.
But it is nothing compared to bringing down the number of road deaths, which is actually a nightmare," he told journalists at the ministry's media night recently.
When I received that SMS at Heathrow Airport from Suret, it really spoilt my day. I couldn't eat well the whole day."
Turning to Suret, who was present, he said: "Datuk Suret, oh, you are not yet a Datuk ... but if you can bring down further the number of fatal accidents, I think you can be a Datuk soon."
Is the task at hand twice as difficult? Just consider these facts – Malaysia, with a population of 25 million, has 14 million vehicles and to compound this, motorcycles, considered the most vulnerable to road accidents, make up half the number.
Between 60% and 65% of those killed in road accidents are motorcyclists and their pillion riders, suggesting that efforts to reduce road deaths are not likely to be successful if the number of these two-wheelers keeps rising.
The motorcycle density has a direct effect in making Malaysia's road death figure one of the world's highest.
Countries like Britain, Germany and Spain have a lower death toll per 100,000 people than Malaysia's rate of 25 and one probable reason is that their motorcycle "population" is only 3% compared with the close to 50% found locally.
Malaysian registered 1.02 million vehicles last year, up almost 10% from 2004, with 45% being motorcycles.
The number is expected to rise steadily as finance companies come up with longer term instalment schemes to boost car sales.
Another factor working against road safety efforts is that unlike in some countries which have laws to discourage car ownership, the same cannot be applied in Malaysia because the survival of the national car industry depends largely on domestic sales.
Suret's department and other agencies tasked with road safety such as the traffic police and the Road Transport Department (JPJ) also have to contend with some 10 million drivers.
A lot has been written about the ugly image of Malaysian drivers and how negatively they behave when they are on the road.
At least 400,000 new drivers join the ranks of motorists every year and their number is also expected to swell, especially with the relaxed financing rules.
According to Suret, except for the unusually high fatality figure of 29 on Nov 5, the daily death toll dropped to 15.5 during the latest operation carried out over 15 days from Jan 23 for the Chinese New Year season, compared with 17 on other days.
During Ops Sikap, an estimated two million motorists join the balik kampung exodus to get to their destinations from cities and big towns, especially the densely populated Klang Valley.
But Suret agrees that there has been too much media hype surrounding Ops Sikap, with its daily death toll making headlines, while on other days, just about the same number of fatal accidents occurred anyway without alarm bells ringing.
During Ops Sikap, thousands of extra traffic policemen and JPJ personnel are deployed throughout the country to look out for traffic offenders.
Besides this, lorries and trucks are taken off the road during peak hours while express bus drivers come under closer scrutiny.
"It is beginning to bear some results because although the number of vehicles on the roads double during the festive season, the number of road deaths have actually come down compared with the non-festive period."
But Suret says it is far too early to declare Ops Sikap a success and the recent figures could very well be just an aberration.
If he had his way, it would make more sense for Ops Sikap to be an all-year-round affair instead of conducting it just during the festive season.
"To enable an all year-round operation, the police and the JPJ need to overcome their logistic problems. But the logistics are expected to be in place when surveillance cameras and the enforcement system being considered by the Transport Ministry are implemented," said Suret.
Apart from the unquantifiable loss of lives, many involving people in their prime, and untold sufferings of the loved ones left behind, road accidents also cause an unnecessarily huge drain on the country's economy.
Health Minister Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek says one road accident victim is admitted to hospital every six minutes, adding further to congestion in hospitals and the workload of doctors and paramedics.
He estimates that the country loses between RM5.4bil and RM5.7bil because of road accidents. If the loss of human lives in the road carnage is not checked, the nation's drive to develop its young human capital might also be undermined.Dr Chua, whose ministry is in the frontline in bearing the cost of dealing with road accident victims, appealed recently to local car manufacturers to make their cars safer.
Suret is already thinking out of the box on this. He is in the midst of getting local car makers to install safety gadgets like airbags and the ABS brake system in all cars sold in the country in future.
The ABS is an anti-lock brake system that prevents the car from skidding when the brakes are applied."I really hope this can be done quickly," he says.
No doubt these gadgets will up the price of cars, but with longer repayment schemes, the average car buyer needs to pay just an insignificant additional sum.
It is the least they could do to help tackle what has been a nightmare for Chan and others dealing with road safety. – Bernama