As fatalities from road accidents rise,harsher penalties,limited driving hours,mandatory training and re-education are among the measures being bandied to rectify the situation.WONG LI ZA and SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH report.
THREE years ago, Nagaletchumi Nagalingam was involved in a near-fatal accident.
Naga, 41, was driving down a two-lane road one night. She was behind a lorry, which was moving at a slow pace. After ensuring there was no oncoming traffic, Naga proceeded to overtake the heavy vehicle.
“I suddenly noticed a car approaching from behind at a very high speed,” she recalled.
The driver of the other car 'squeezed' between Naga's vehicle and the lorry while Naga was still in the midst of overtaking. She was forced to swerve, hitting the guardrail on the right side of the road when she did. The car spun out of control and hit the guard rail on the left.
The next thing she knew, she was lying on the grassy edge of the road.
“I don't remember being thrown out of the car. I only realised I was out of my car when I felt that I was lying on the grass,” she related.
Naga sustained injuries that required 20 stitches on her left ear as well as various cuts and bruises on the left side of her body. The worst injury she sustained was on her left leg where the ligaments were severely torn.
“At one point, doctors told me that I would never walk again without crutches,” she said tearfully as she recalled the horror of the incident.
Fortunately, except for some limitations in climbing stairs, she is walking fine now. But she still cannot believe all the pain and trauma she went through just because of a cruel and reckless driver who never even stopped to help her.
The recent Ops Sikap V traffic operation, launched on Nov 20, recorded 213 deaths out of 9,744 accidents during the 12-day period. In Ops Sikap IV, held early this year, there were 5,801 accidents and 98 deaths.
The first Ops Sikap was carried out in Dec 2001 and recorded 11,063 accidents and 223 deaths. (Source: Royal Malaysian Police)
The number of accidents and road deaths from 2000 to 2003 has been steadily increasing. In 2000, there were 250, 429 accidents with 6,029 deaths. In 2001, the figure was 265,175 with 5,230 deaths and last year, there were 279, 641 road accidents and 5,886 deaths. (Source: Road Transport Department)
As an effort to reduce accidents during the Hari Raya festive season recently, the Government banned heavy vehicles like lorries and trailers on federal roads and highways for four days.
However, the crash between two buses in Kuala Lipis on Nov 30, which claimed 14 lives, was a blow and sparked off another round of discussions about methods to reduce such accidents. Methods proposed included speed-control mechanisms for express buses, at least eight hours' rest between jobs for the drivers, and mandatory training in commercial vehicle safety standards.
Last December, the Transport Ministry had said it would look into making it compulsory for employers to keep a record of the working hours of bus and lorry drivers and also review policies and regulations on offences and driving.
Recently, Transport Minister Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy said commercial vehicle drivers would be required to undergo training in areas such as defensive driving and vehicle mechanics before they were issued their licences.
Earlier this week, Entrepreneur Development Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz said he would make a proposal at the next Cabinet meeting that all express buses be fitted with speed-control mechanisms.
He also said the Ministry would direct all express bus companies to ensure that the number of trips taken daily by their drivers does not exceed the legal stipulation and that they are able to rest for at least eight hours before they drive again the following day.
Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca) president Datuk Prof Hamdan Adnan agreed that this was necessary as some bus companies may force drivers to work long hours.
“In order to stay awake, they may take drugs or alcohol. That is even more dangerous,” he said.
Section 41(1) of the Road Transport Act 1987 states that the offence of causing death by reckless or dangerous driving is punishable by a jail term of two to 10 years and a fine of between RM5,000 and RM20,000.
The Government has formulated a 10-year road safety plan with the aim of achieving a rate of 3.5 deaths per 10,000 vehicles by 2010.
In 1996, the country’s death rate per every 10,000 registered vehicles was 8.2, while last year, it was 4.9 deaths.
In a 2000 report published by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the countries with the lowest fatality rate per 10,000 registered vehicles were Norway (1.0), followed by Britain and Sweden (1.2), Japan and Switzerland (1.3).
Australia’s fatality rate per 10,000 registered vehicles has also seen a drop. In 2000, the rate was 1.41, while in 2001 it was 1.39. Last year, the rate went down further to 1.35.
This was likely a result of the Australian Transport Council's National Road Safety Action Plan 2001/2002, where significant areas of achievement to reduce road accidents included implementing 50kph speed limits on local residential streets in most urban areas.
The action plan also saw major public education campaigns focusing on the importance of reducing driving speeds and investing in speed detection technologies, especially speed and red light cameras.
Most states also laid the groundwork for joint alcohol schemes targeting drunk drivers.
Under Australia's National Road Safety Strategy 2001-2010, the target is 5.6 road deaths per 100,000 population by 2010, which would be a reduction of 36% from 2002, where the fatality rate per 100,000 population was 8.75.
The country's 2003/2004 Action Plan included additional measures to discourage speeding such as including more urban areas with a default speed limit of 50kph, improving dangerous locations on roads, boosting programmes to reduce drink driving and improving efforts to cut fatigue-related crashes.
In UK, an estimated 10% of collisions, around 23,300 a year, are related to driver-fatigue and a fifth of motorway collisions are caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel (UK Department of Transport, 2002).
Every year, around 3,500 people are killed on Britain's roads and 40,000 are seriously injured.
In March 2000, the British government set tough new targets to reduce deaths and serious injuries by 2010, aiming at a 40% reduction overall and a 50% reduction for children.
Among the department's 10 strategies listed are targeting children's safety, creating safer drivers through training and testing, warning drivers against alcohol, drugs and drowsiness, and promoting safer infrastructure, speed limits and vehicles.
According to Minister Chan, carelessness accounted for 67% of the 279,711 road accidents last year, followed by bad road conditions at 28%.
However, Dr Kulanthayan K.C. Mani, research fellow with the Road Safety Research Centre based in Universiti Putra Malaysia, said it was unknown how severe driver fatigue contributed to road accidents.
“To date, no studies have been undertaken,” he said in an interview. “Moreover, there is no objective measure to ascertain fatigue.”
He said that the few ways fatigue could be determined was if the vehicle travelled to the incorrect side of a straight road and was involved in a head-on collision (and was not overtaking another vehicle and no other relevant factor was identified).
Another sign was if the vehicle ran off a straight road or off to the curve outside and it was not directly identified as travelling at excessive speed and there was no other relevant factor identified in the manoeuvre.
Interviewing survivors of an accident to know whether fatigue was the reason for their accident is another method.
Nevertheless, Kulanthayan is all for the strict enforcement of the two-driver rule for all long distance bus journeys, especially for night driving.
“This is important because drivers usually would only be able to concentrate fully for a maximum of four hours of non-stop driving. Thus, it is highly advisable for them to take a break for journeys beyond that,” he said.
“For night driving, driver fatigue tends to increase after 4am especially if they had little rest before starting out.”
President of the Association of Malaysian Driving Institutes Mat Aris Bakar stressed the immediate need for refresher courses for drivers.
“Our country is in a transition period between the old and new curriculum, which was introduced in 1992, so the results are not immediately known.
“These refresher courses must include all road users including pedestrians and cyclists,” said Mat Aris, adding that in Japan, drivers attend refresher courses once every three years.
He also emphasised on education, enforcement (not only human enforcement but technology such as electronically variable speed limit signs), and road engineering to reduce road accidents.
Kulan added that installing speed cameras along the roadways to detect speeding vehicles was found to be successful in developing countries.
This in turn reduces the possibilities of an accident and accident severities in the event that an accident is unavoidable.
“Reducing vehicle speed is a promising intervention,” said Kulanthayan.
Added Mat Aris, “Many drivers look but fail to see. They don't know how to define and analyse a hazard, and act in time, which is the standard accident prevention formula.”
He said that with more speed, a driver must know about skid control and correct steering, braking and cornering techniques.
Mat Aris also advocated the safe following distance of at least a two-second gap.
“This can apply at any speed,” he said.
He also felt the need for a separate road safety department.
“If the Government is really serious about a new curriculum and safety policy, we need a Department for Road Safety for more permanence. A council is only ad-hoc. The Department must have three units – education, training and testing,” said Mat Aris.
Prof Hamdan stressed the need to more actively promote the Kejara demerit point system.
“I think most people don’t understand it. That’s why we need to re-introduce it,” he said.
Kejara is short for Sistem Penalti Mata Demerit Kesalahan Jalanraya. For more information, visit www.jpj.gov.my
Kulanthayan felt that the main weakness in our demerit system was that points were only deducted when the offender paid the fine.
“This means if the offender escapes the fine, he escapes the demerit points too,” he said.
“In the UK, the demerit system is well enforced. Once a probationary driver has three counts of speeding, his licence will immediately be suspended,” added Kulan.
Prof Hamdan also stressed the need to inculcate the right attitude from young.
“Start from kindergarten and nursery levels, so all through their lives they will inculcate good habits. Children also cross the roads and sit in cars with their parents. With good safety habits, they can even advise their parents to be more responsible and careful drivers,” he said.