It's time for road safety to get a radical overhaul

This bus skidded and overturned on Phahon Yothin Highway just north of Bangkok on Sunday, killing six passengers and injuring all 50-plus survivors. (Twitter/js100radio)

A severe bus crash on a Pathum Thani road in the wee hours of Jan 6 that killed six passengers and injured many has left egg on the faces of the big shots at the Department of Land Transport (DLT).

The mishap, which involved a private Roi Et-Bangkok bus operator, came less than three days after the department boasted of its success in implementing tough measures during the "seven dangerous days" that brought down the number of bus accidents to five, the lowest ever during the festive season.

DLT director-general Peerapol Thawornsuphacharoen said there were zero deaths on public buses during the seven-day campaign, and only a few minor injuries.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

The measures, according to Mr Peerapol, included thorough inspections of buses as well as their drivers. He told the media a total of 132,813 intercity vehicles and their drivers were checked. Of those, seven buses were deemed not fit for service. The director-general said one vehicle was taken off the road due to a malfunctioning GPS device, six vehicles were ordered replaced and two drivers were taken off duty due to fatigue.

Mr Peerapol also said the buses are fitted with an alarm system that activates when bus drivers doze off at the wheel and their heads lean forward. His statement suggested the agency should be proactive in making public bus services safer.

It is unfortunate that not long after the "success", some bus operators simply went back to "business as usual" practices. While the cause of the Jan 6 mishap is under investigation, the nature of the crash with the bus overturning seemed to suggest a certain level of carelessness on the part of the driver. At least one passenger who was on board the doomed bus confirmed this. He said the driver drove dangerously after the vehicle departed the bus terminal in Roi Et.

Why were Mr Peerapol's measures, which were a good start, so short-lived?

It's a fact that the lack of safe, efficient public transportation is one of the major root causes of traffic-related deaths. I don't mean only crashes of buses which are a direct cause. There are also indirect causes which largely slip by the public's attention. Without efficient bus services, people are forced to buy private vehicles, cars for the well-heeled and motorcycles for people with lower incomes.

With more vehicles on the road, there is an increased chance of accidents happening. Of course, some may argue that if motorists or motorcyclists observe road safety rules, fatalities will be low. But this is not the point.

Those who have their own cars hardly opt for public buses -- or trains which are safer -- basically because of the lack of a comprehensive network. This is a reason why public vans have become popular among travellers. While most bus terminals are located out of town, vans can get into the heart of the city and that makes it easier for passengers. The lack of an efficient public transport network is a problem for daily commuters in the provinces.

The mother of 14-year-old boy who was recently killed when his motorcycle, which was a birthday gift, crashed is a case in point. Many blamed the mother for buying the two-wheel vehicle as a gift despite his young age; and criticised the boy for riding dangerously. Yes, the boy might not have been killed if he had been properly trained about road safety. It's a pity that the family had not thought about this.

But this is only half the story.

The rest of the story is that the boy -- like many youngsters in the provinces -- had difficulty travelling to school. This is a problem that people in Bangkok cannot comprehend. Bangkok has bus networks and, though they're a far cry from perfect, there are choices for young people, especially those from lower-income families.

But for those in the provinces, what choice do they have? Imagine students who have to travel to school in other districts. Or workers who have to go to work some 20-30 kilometres away from home. They need independent transport that allows them to arrive at their offices on time.

A large number of people lauded the new measures by the Department of Land Transport to ban people under 15 from riding motorcycles as a way to reduce traffic-related fatalities among young people but, needless to say, the measures are a pain when the state fails to provide good public transport that gives commuters better alternatives.

Comprehensive measures are needed to boost road safety. One of them is a real overhaul of the public transport system and it must begin now.

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