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Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 11:16
Smart-city project must prioritize traffic safety
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 11:16 By Ho Lok-sang

Last Saturday a serious traffic accident occurred on Tai Po Road near Tai Po Mei, involving a KMB bus. The vehicle flipped over onto its side while making a turn, reportedly at high speed. It led to 19 deaths and dozens of injuries. The shocking news reaffirmed my earlier worries about Hong Kong’s dismal traffic safety record. 

In an article titled “Hong Kong needs to make road safety a top priority issue”, published on Nov 15, 2016, I cited the Economist: “Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of pedestrian deaths per year (among the world’s cities),” and went on to write: “The average number of traffic accidents from 2005 to 2015 stands at 15,322 per year. That of fatal ones stands at 127; while that of serious ones stands at 2,305. On average, 134 people died of traffic accidents each year in the 11 years from 2005 to 2015. In the first 10 months of this year, 99 people were killed in such accidents, or roughly 10 people per month. More than 2,000 people are maimed through serious traffic accidents per year.”

I quickly examined traffic accident statistics from the Transport Department website to check for any updates. It is shocking to me that the traffic accident trends for public buses, light goods vehicles and for medium and heavy goods vehicles were all rising! The “involvement rate” for public buses went from 2.74 per million vehicle-kilometers in 2006 to 2.71 in 2009 (the bottom) then up to 3.39 in 2016; that for light goods vehicles went from 1.26 in 2006 to 1.12 in 2009 (the bottom) then 1.29 in 2016 (a new high); that for medium and heavy goods vehicles went from 0.86 in 2006 to 0.76 in 2009 (the bottom) and 0.96 in 2016 (a new high). The strange thing is that the involvement rate had been falling to a bottom in 2009 for all three classes of vehicles but has been on an uptrend since then. Something systematic is happening. 

The statistics are objective indicators that the smart-city project is failing its most basic task of making our city safer. Before our city becomes safe, all other smart-city initiatives will not mean much

It is notable that, over the same period, the accident involvement rates for other vehicle categories have fallen: motor cycles, private cars, taxis and public light buses. It is also notable that the involvement rate for public light buses actually hit a new low in 2016, at only 2.57 per million vehicle-kilometers, down from 2.83 in 2006. Interestingly, for public light buses, the peak of the involvement rate happened in 2010, when it stood at 3.15. Another class of vehicle that saw a secular decline in the involvement rate which fell to a new low in 2016 is motor cycles. This suggests the uptrend of accident involvement rates for public buses and various goods vehicles has nothing to do with changes in general traffic conditions. 

It is likely that the fall in the involvement rate of public light buses is due to installation of speed-limit devices on these vehicles; the fall in the involvement rate for motor cycles just reflects a rise in caution taken by motorists.

The statistics suggest many accidents involving public buses and trucks are avoidable. Although I do not have proven answers as to what caused the uptrend, the likely answers may have to do with long working hours, pressure to meet tight schedules or employment of less experienced drivers due to a labor shortage problem. Some Tai Po Road accident survivors claimed the driver was “throwing a tantrum” after an angry exchange of words with impatient passengers. Emotional stability is certainly another important factor to safe driving. It was also reported the driver had been involved in another accident before, and one that had caused injuries, raising question over whether the bus company had done due diligence in its recruitment of drivers.

It will take some time before the real cause of the accident is confirmed officially but there is much we can do to lower the accident rate involving public buses and goods vehicles. A way that will certainly be effective is to impose a big fine on the company that operates the vehicle that is involved in a serious accident — unless it is established that other parties are at fault. Another way is requiring bus companies to install speed limit devices on their buses. Still another way is installing sensors on the vehicles so that making dangerous turns will set off an alarm and be recorded. 

If we are serious about the smart-city project, we should explore the possibility of requiring all vehicles to install video cameras and sensors so vehicles speeding dangerously or not following traffic lights, or which otherwise behave abnormally, will set off an alarm for the driver, or even send a signal to the police.

The statistics are objective indicators that the smart-city project is failing its most basic task of making our city safer. Before our city becomes safe, all other smart-city initiatives will not mean much. After all, only a safe city can be a smart city.

The author is dean of business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education.

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