Stern action welcome, but you can do more Anthony Loke

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 9 – Just three days after six firemen lost their lives under tragic circumstances, five people, including a baby, died in an accident on the North-South Highway (PLUS) that has raised the ire of many, including Transport Minister Anthony Loke.

The accident, between a trailer lorry and a car, occurred at 11.45am on Saturday a few kilometres after the Menora Tunnel in Perak, where the highway winds down a steep incline before it continues northbound. The five occupants of the car burned to death, after the trailer had crushed and pinned it to the concrete divider.

The difference between the two incidents however, is that there is some immediate action taken by the relevant authorities when it comes to the latter.

Grounding of company’s vehicles for 2 weeks, a first

Yesterday, Loke, held a press conference to announce that the company which is operating the trailer lorry has been ordered to ground all its vehicles with immediate effect.

Loke also instructed the Road Transport Department (JPJ) to ensure the company’s remaining 27 vehicles are all in the depot for the duration of the suspension.

The two-week suspension imposed on Syarikat Usaha Maju Trading Sdn Bhd is a most welcome move by the minister, as this is a first in the country despite all the accidents involving lorries and which resulted in fatalities previously.

The minister also instructed the Land and Public Transport Commission (SPAD) to carry out an audit to check if there are other offences involving the remaining vehicles and the company’s operations that warrant further action.

Finally, we are seeing what should have been enforced since many years ago on how to treat the issue of safety on the roads and highways.

Stern action against companies ignoring safety

This is what any proper government and enforcement agency already has the mandate to carry out but be it due to corruption, or the using of “friends in high places” way of doing business all these years, had been grossly ignored.

Loke was absolutely right in saying that the stern action will drive home the message to transport operating companies that they would have to take the rap if they give little attention to safety.

He also instructed the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros) to conduct a study on the structure of the road along the incline after the Menora Tunnel, and look into the possibility of commercial vehicles, such as heavy lorries, being prevented from using the highway.

Of course, the most obvious result of taking these commercial vehicles off the highways is that they will use federal roads, otherwise known as trunk roads, to connect towns.

Loke acknowledged that in itself presents the same problem of commercial vehicles endangering commuters using such roads, not to mention creating congestion on the smaller roads due to its size and sometimes slower speeds.

Aside from the immediate action taken against the negligent transport company, the evaluation of the highway, and the consideration of alternate routes, one hopes the minister and the agencies he oversees will consider some other remedial actions to prevent accidents involving heavy vehicles.

Companies to blame for drivers on drugs, outstanding summons

The most obvious and urgent measure any lorry company must do is ensure its drivers are not on drugs and also have no outstanding summons against them.

It is simply shocking to hear after any accident involving a lorry or a bus to see the police or minister saying that the driver had tens of summons outstanding, as well as found to be driving while on drugs, such as amphetamines.

Where is the enforcement by the police, JPJ and SPAD, let alone the due diligence by the transport companies? Unless the companies are complicit in providing the banned substances to their drivers to help them on their long journeys themselves.

Drivers are sleepy and tired because they are overworked and trying to meet targets due to companies tying in driver incentives to delivery, while neglecting safety. Drugs are not the solution.

That is a question that the minister should ask his enforcement agencies to look into as well.

The minister must stop this rot immediately and also look into the inefficiencies and possible corruption in his own agencies on why this has been going for so long. Heads should roll for the dangers that such inaction had placed on the roads.

This is an issue that the Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran should also look into, especially if there is unfair treatment and punishment against drivers, such as docking pay and allowances, over delays.

Also, the Peninsular Malaysia Transport Workers Union (TWU) should step in now and make the case for their members and companies should not be allowed to take action against drivers who join the union.

Retread tyres, a danger caused by company management, directors

The other urgent matter is on the use of retread tyres by these companies for their heavy vehicles. The use of this cheaper option has already proven to be fatal in several accidents in the past.

The most serious was when six people died on April 2 last year. They were in an MPV travelling north along the PLUS highway, near Tanjung Malim, when their vehicle was crushed by a trailer which lost control after its retread tyre burst.

The police then detained and remanded the lorry driver but the company, its management and directors got off scot free.

The drivers don’t make the decision on what type of tyres to purchase. It is the management and directors who are responsible.

This was highlighted by the Malaysian Lorry Drivers Club patron Ahmad Faizol Yaakop in a Bernama report on April 8 last year, where he said many transport companies, without thinking of the risks involved, prefer to use retread tyres as the price is about four times cheaper than original tyres.

Random, regular checks on highways a must

As for the condition of the highways and speed issue, it is good to know that the minister has ordered JPJ officers to be stationed at spots after the Menora Tunnel for north and south-bound traffic to evaluate the situation. But it cannot be just a short term issue.

There must be strict enforcement carried out randomly, for a few times a week so that drivers will always need to be on guard, hence drive with caution. This should also be applied at various stretches of the highways.

There should also not be announcement of such moves, so that companies are not forewarned. After all, there have been allegations in the past that there are JPJ informants, warning lorry and bus companies on any operation carried out.

Can you check this rot too, Minister Loke?

Use rail instead of lorries, trailers

Finally, for a long-term solution under the minister’s purview, have companies use the rail network for cargo instead of the highway.

The existing rail system is under-utilised all along the west coast when it comes to the transport of goods.

That will reduce the use of lorries and trailers while also helping to increase revenue for KTM, a loss-making railway operator which has been placed under the supervision of the government.

Such a move will then take the load off the highways and federal roads, indirectly reducing the congestion and reducing the high-rate of accidents.

Rail should not be seen only to transport passengers. With double tracking in place, the ability for optimum use of rail for both cargo and passengers must be a priority for the transport ministry.

Restrict timing of lorries on highways, roads

In the meantime, another urgent measure could be to limit heavy vehicles from using highways during peak periods, including weekends, public holidays, festive season and certain hours on weekdays.

Yes, it is very restrictive, but it will eventually force the companies which want their goods to be transported, not to rely on lorry companies, but look at alternatives, including rail and shipping.

– By K. Anand