Commentary Local

Time to elevate safety standards for factory and school buses

Written by TheMole

May 1, 2019
By Shahrim Tamrin

IT is no secret that the factory and school bus segments are the lowest chain of bus ownership in the transport industry.

Hence, the  erosion of quality of these buses and the level of service. This segment of road transport has not been given the due focus and care for quite a while.

A transport sector that has yet to receive full attention in holistic manner on its safety standard due to lack of resources and budget constraints faced by the authorities in the past.

The focus, for many years, has always been about express bus operators due to the high number of fatalities and injuries in a single crash.

The Recommendation Review Panel (RRP) formed by Transport Ministry last July solely focussed on express and tour buses including some improvements and tweaking for heavy vehicle operations.

Safety Star Grading, installation of cabin CCTV, brake retarder, speed limiter and compulsory usage of seat belts for passengers by 2020 in express and tour buses are among the recommendations by the Panel.

Again, the factory bus was overlooked. Currently, it is estimated there are about 14,000 school buses nationwide with almost 70 per cent consisting of van shuttles in size while around 13,000 factory buses are believed to be in operation throughout the Peninsular.

The figures of 14k and 13k of these road transport segments are far higher than the estimated 3,500 express buses in Peninsular. Looking at the figures, the factory bus category deserves the next special focus due to its nature of travelling in and out of the respective region or district.

The tragic news of road crashes and fatalities involving factory buses is not something new even though it is not as frequent as the mayhem involving express buses.

So when the news broke about 11 deaths in a factory bus crash at around 11 pm near Kuala Lumpur International Airport two weeks ago, I was very upset. Eleven deaths are not something to be taken lightly.

It was reported by the local newspaper that there was no skid or brake marks at the crash scene. Survivors claimed that the driver – who was killed in the crash – was speeding prior to the impact.

In October 2017, eight perished and 42 injured in a three-vehicle collision near Juru toll plaza (northbound) on North-South Expressway. Survivors stated that the factory bus driver was speeding and one of the buses was experiencing engine malfunction prior to the incident.

It is understood that the authorities are uncertain on the volume of old factory buses including those that are more than 20 years old. Ironically, there is no clear counter-measure currently to restrict them due to the fact that many of these ageing buses had received the green light by Puspakom.

Ageing buses

It is common knowledge that after years in service plying the inter-state routes, there would always be willing buyers waiting in line to buy the used express buses. Depending on the budget and operating expenditure, the favourable vehicle age by veteran and new transport entrepreneurs to purchase these worn-out express buses is between six and 10 years in service.

If one is lucky, the factory bus operator can clinch a deal for an 11-year-old express bus that is still in good condition. It is also no secret that long-used factory buses are passed down to school bus operators.

Imagine your kids or spouse boarding a bus with mileage clocking around two million kilometres or more than 15 years in service and it is considered as ‘brand new’ for a factory bus or school bus?

Many of these factory buses do travel far and wide every day. As there is a lack of enforcement against this type of transport service, this is a cause for concern.

I am quite familiar with the story of factory buses transporting workers from Kluang and Simpang Renggam travelling to the Causeway or from Seberang Perai to Bayan Lepas on daily basis, for example.

It is also no secret these factory bus drivers work long hours just to complete multiple trips as part of the contract requirements.

Hence, the clients or the employers must shoulder the blame for indirectly allowing factory bus operators to continue using below-par sub-standard ‘cheap’ buses as most of them are contracted with companies especially in the oil and gas, electronic, logistics and manufacturing sectors.

Authorities must act

Among the things that Land Public Transport Agency (APAD) and Road Transport Department (JPJ) must assess right now is the roadworthiness of factory and school buses while looking into the possibility to retire buses that are more than 20 years old.

In the past, factory and school bus operators cried foul if the screw was tightened by the authorities claiming that they didn’t make enough revenue to sustain or purchase a ‘much younger vehicle’.

However, if one analyses most contracts entered between the transport operators and companies (clients), the deal has always been based on the market rate.

Two years ago, the now-defunct Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) launched its safety code namely ICOP SHE for the freight, express and tour bus industry which included training guidelines and audit. Now, the responsibility for the monitoring and safety audit has been passed on to JPJ.

It remains to be seen if JPJ is able to follow the footsteps of SPAD. There are question marks lingering about JPJ’s capability and willingness to strategize its resources and focus for all segments of road transport following the disbandment of SPAD.

Notwithstanding the fact that APAD manpower has been reduced, APAD and JPJ should conduct a serious review of the age of vehicles as well as safety features in factory and school bus fleet.

I doubt there are even seat belts on the passenger seats.

I have my doubt too that the enforcement agencies have been conducting regular checks on the factory bus drivers for valid permits and PSV licenses. At times, I have witnessed these buses racing among themselves after each factory shift ended.

The safety standards for express and tour bus industry must also be applied to factory bus operators. The modernisation of IT such as speed limiter and brake retarder should also be part of the features for factory buses.

There should be no compromise on road safety.

Going back to the ‘not-so-shocking’ news of bus crashes every now and then, it is high time for the authorities to drag a transport operator to court.

According to the Land Public Transport Act 2010 (amended) and under the permit regulation including the iCOP SHE, a transport operator can be charged in court for operation negligence or failure to comply with the safety guidelines and steps.

For the record, at the time this scribe was written, no operator (rail and road transport) has been brought to court by SPAD (in the past) or JPJ after a major crash, what more any incident.

Let me repeat, zero court action so far against any land transport company by the authorities all this while.

On this Labour Day of 2019, I wonder if APAD and JPJ could create history soon by taking operators to court for negligence and being responsible directly and indirectly over a mishap on the road.

(Shahrim is passionate about saving lives on the road. He has been writing about the public transport, automotive-related and road safety issues in the past 10 years. He is also a Miros Board member since January this year and a recipient of a road safety award from Asean NCAP in 2016)



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