A matter of speed and safety

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 23 Mar 2003


T. LAKANAKUMAR was quite pleased when he read about the Government's decision to increase the maximum speed limit on certain highways.  

Travelling frequently between Kuantan and Kuala Lumpur in his Proton Waja, Kumar, as he is known among his friends, can soon drive confidently at 120kph, the proposed new maximum speed limit on certain highways, without fear of getting a traffic summons. 

“I’m glad that it’s 120kph. Actually, 130kph is a more comfortable speed for me,” said the 35-year-old. 

His friend Dr S. Devaraj shared his view on the 10kph increase.  

“Finally. Cars are built a lot stronger and faster now. The 110kph does not make much sense because we can travel safely and the roads are much better,” said Dr Devaraj, 32, who drives frequently between Kuantan and Malacca. 

Added Kumar, “Most accidents happen because of carelessness. (In terms of safety), driving another 10kph extra will not make much difference because a person driving at 120kph will take the same precautions as someone driving at 110kph, such as wearing a safety belt, not using the mobile phone and being alert.” 

But both concurred that 120kph was only the maximum speed, saying that people should drive at slower or their own comfortable speed, especially when it rained or when approaching difficult road stretches. 

Businessman H. X. Leong felt that going too slowly on the highways could even prove harmful. 

“Driving too slow can make one feel sleepy. We have good roads and better cars these days and can afford to go at a faster speed,” said the 29-year-old. 

The Government had agreed to the proposed 120kph maximum speed limit on highways after the Works Ministry presented the findings of a survey, which showed that 87% of respondents from government, non-governmental organisations and other road users supported the increase. 

Transport Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik said that the increase was appropriate in view of better highways and improved car technology. 

However, road crash investigator specialist Dr Ali Hassan felt that the performance and technology of cars were not as important as the drivers themselves. 

“At the end of the day, it should be the driver handling the car, not the car handling the driver. (It also depends on) if a high-performance car is driven by a novice and the road conditions,” he said. 

Ali added that the safety of cars has improved over the years but that could lead to misinterpretation on the level of safety and fatality rate. 

“All crashes are not the same. Some will survive if you follow the regulations. For example, airbags can only protect if seat belts are worn,” he cautioned. 

It is a known fact that speed alone does not cause accidents, but it remains one of the main factors.  

“Accidents happen because of loss of control due to many reasons including speeding, change in road surface, inattention and driver behaviour,” Ali explained. 

Road accidents cost our country an annual loss of RM6bil. 

The absolute number of accidents has, over the years, undoubtedly risen with the increase in population and motor ownership, with the highest rate of accidents involving motorcyclists. 

According to traffic statistics from the Royal Malaysian Police, there were 48,233 road traffic accidents in 1975. In 2002, the number increased to 279,237, more than a five-fold increase.  

The number of fatalities (death within 30 days after an accident) increased from 2,317 in 1975 to 5,887 in 2002, an increase of 154%. 

However, according to Transport Ministry statistics, the fatal accident rate per 10,000 vehicles has gone down from 7.41 in 1990 to 5.72 in 2000. Last year, the rate went down further to 4.97. 

By the year 2010, Malaysia aims to reduce its fatality rate to 3.5 deaths per 10,000 vehicles. (The average death per 10,000 vehicles in developed countries is 2.0). 

In December last year, the Government announced that it would review all policies and legislations on traffic offences and driving to reduce the high road fatality rate. It is also looking at improving the driving school curriculum and having more stringent licensing regulations. 

In a paper presented to the Road Safety Council Malaysia in October last year, the Road Safety Research Centre (RSRC) at Universiti Putra Malaysia said that excessive speed was reported to be an important contributory factor in many crashes. There was also evidence of a positive association between speed and the risk of crash or injuries. 

The centre said that for every 10kph increase in speed, there would be a 24% increase in number of fatalities. Furthermore, a human’s tolerance of impact (resulting in non-threatening injuries) is 40kph, equivalent to jumping from the second floor of a building. 

“With the new speed limit, we are concerned that more people may get killed if highway conditions remain the same,” said Prof Dr Radin Umar Radin Sohadi, head of RSRC. 

Although the centre respected the Cabinet’s decision to raise the speed limit, it voiced a few concerns. 

“Once we increase the limit, we must try our best in site selection. If the area has a good clear zone, good geometry and surface, et cetera, as specified in the JKR standards, then it would be okay for the site to have the 120kph speed limit,” said Radin. 

“But we may have certain stretches where there are trees planted near the highway or highways that go through housing areas (which are not suitable for the 120kph limit),” he said. 

Radin added that a safe clear zone (or space at the sides) on the highway should be at least 9m but on the North-South highway, certain clear zones were as narrow as 2m. 

“If we have objects too near the highway, they should be able to absorb the impact (should an accident occur). Service providers should constantly carry out such road audits and also keep upgrading the highways,” he stressed. 

Radin also urged that constant reviewing and assessment of the situation after the implementation of the new speed limit be carried out. 

“The authorities also need to keep monitoring road accident statistics of the areas where the 120kph limit will be implemented,” he said. 

President of the Association of Malaysian Driving Institutes Mat Aris Bakar said he was quite happy about the increase in the speed limit. However, he was quick to add that driving at that speed required certain conditions. 

“Fast driving needs skill. If the driver goes fast, he must have enough experience in the braking technique. If not, it can cause skidding. The driver also needs to understand the type of skid and correct the steering accordingly,” he explained. 

As such, he proposed that part of the syllabus in the current Driving Rehabilitation Course conducted by the Road Transport Department be adopted into the driving school curriculum.  

“One subject in the rehabilitation course includes skid control, braking techniques, cornering techniques and stress management. These should be incorporated into the first licence itself,” said Mat Aris, who spent eight years in RTD, with his last posting being at the Driver Education Unit at the department’s headquarters. 

(According to Article 5(5) of the Road Transport Act (Demerit Points) Rule 1997, the director general of the RTD has the right to order drivers who have their licences suspended more than once to attend a Driving Rehabilitation Course.) 

Mat Aris said the new speed limit was acceptable because our highways are in good condition but that a driver still needed to be alert and the car roadworthy.  

He also said that keeping the maximum limit permanent was not practical. 

“It should have a variable limit depending on weather conditions. If it is raining heavily, we cannot maintain it at 120kph,” he said, adding that these changes in limit could be done via electronic message board systems along the highways.  

On top of good engineering, infrastructure and skills, preventing road accidents requires another vital element – attitude. 

Good driving habits remain the most difficult aspect to cultivate. It does not help that road safety education in Malaysia still needs a lot of work. 

“In New Zealand, defensive driving was introduced back in the 70s. In Malaysia, it was only in 1991,” said Mat Aris, explaining that defensive driving was basically learning how to use knowledge, skill and positive attitude to avoid accidents. 

Early road safety education has been upheld as an important role in reducing accidents. 

“The approach in successful countries is to start them young, from pre-school to driving school, and after that, with refresher classes,” said Radin. 

Added Mat Aris, “Once our children become road users, which means when they walk on the road or cycle, there should be road safety education with the objective of developing good attitude, something that takes a long time to achieve. 

“When someone gets his (car) licence at 17, he might have already picked up bad driving habits from their parents, for instance. How many people actually stop at zebra crossings here?” 

“That’s why we need a curriculum that includes early education,” he said. 

Maybe that’s something the generation after Kumar, Dr Devaraj and Leong can look forward to.  

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