On Christmas Day last month, a family from Klang mourned the death of V. Renugah, who died at the early age of 26 in yet another express bus crash that cost many innocent lives.
In the Dec 24 incident at Km137.3 of the North-South Expressway (NSE) near Pagoh, Johor, 14 people, including seven women and a girl, were killed when an express bus plunged into a 5m-deep ravine and crashed into the wall of an underpass there.
When I was reading through a story on Renugah’s funeral at her family’s home in Taman Bayu Perdana, Klang, my mind flew back to the first time I covered a funeral of two bus accident victims about seven years ago.
The victims — Shaharin Mohd Nor, 61, and his wife Supiah Adam, 46 — from Johan Setia in Klang, were killed when a double-decker express bus heading to Kangar, Perlis, from Klang skidded and crashed at Km272.8 of the NSE on Dec 26, 2009. Shaharin and Supiah, who left behind five children, were among 10 victims who died in the tragedy, which also saw two others injured.
Soon after the 1am incident, there was a big hoo-ha from the public, who were furious about yet another mass-fatality crash, and from government agencies, ministries as well as independent bodies, which all promised find a solution that would prevent such accidents in the future.
There were all sorts of promises; that there would be no stone left unturned, making sure bus operators allowed their drivers to get enough rest and profiling drivers to scrutinise their background.
A rookie back then with only a few months of experience on the job as a part-time journalist with Berita Harian, I was very excited to see the swift and overwhelming response from these agencies, and looked forward to seeing comprehensive measures being implemented that would ensure the safety of bus passengers and other road users.
Time passed, and seven years down the road, my hope to see something concrete concerning bus safety faded.
I now look at the responses and statements as a mere replay. Since that 2009 funeral, I have covered my fair share of bus accidents, enough to perceive that the pledges and promises might not see the light of day.
To name a few, among the tragedies in which I and other reporters were sent to ground zero were the Oct 10, 2010, accident at Km223 of the NSE in Negri Sembilan, which saw 14 people killed, and the Aug 21, 2013, accident at a ravine in the hill resort of Genting Highlands, where 37 people were killed.
In all, there were the same promises to look seriously into what could be changed in the country’s system.
One of the most frustrating things is the failure to consider bus drivers’ welfare.
They are forced to “catch” daily trips to earn their living. With low basic salaries, these drivers have no choice but to push themselves to make as many trips as is possible to make ends meet.
There have been many calls for the authorities to look into this matter, from reviewing bus drivers’ basic salaries to regulating bus operators to make sure that they do not overwork their drivers.
Besides taking a toll on a driver’s capability, catching trips also compel drivers to speed so that they reach their destinations as early as possible to catch another trip.
To be fair, there’s no method to guarantee zero road accidents. But the risk can be minimised by considering the human factor, as well as vehicle and road conditions.
Among the reasons given by bus operators, which I had gathered when I covered the Negri Sembilan crash in 2010, was that there is a lack of competent bus drivers.
Thus, companies have to rely on whoever they have and, at the same time, compete against each other to secure drivers for their operations. They have to make do with whoever is willing to work for them, regardless of their discipline and attitude behind the wheel.
This is also something that should be looked into.
There is a dire need to increase the pool of drivers, while also ensuring bus operators adhere to a minimum rest time for drivers to curb the trip-catching practice.
A permanent solution must be found to prevent or minimise bus accidents, and enforcement must be intensified. If need be, amend laws to provide severe penalties that will act as a deterrent, be they on the drivers or companies that operate these buses.
Prevention is always better than cure. We should not be a country that only reacts when something happens, then allow everything to return to how it was without learning our lesson.
Hariz Mohd is staff correspondent for NST’s Shah Alam bureau