Malaysia’s killer roads

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Changing the behaviour of road users cannot happen overnight. It takes years of education and campaigns, as well as enforcement activities to make it a reality.Changing the behaviour of road users cannot happen overnight. It takes years of education and campaigns, as well as enforcement activities to make it a reality.Changing the behaviour of road users cannot happen overnight. It takes years of education and campaigns, as well as enforcement activities to make it a reality.

How do you feel when you scroll through your Twitter feed and come across a news item about the latest deaths on the road in Malaysia? Does it upset you, or leave you feeling indifferent? Perhaps we feel nothing because stories on road deaths have become too common here, so much so they no longer have the capacity to shock us.

With close to 7,000 deaths a year – and no signs of the figure falling – road death is one of the top killers in Malaysia, outstripped only by coronary/heart disease, stroke, influenza and pneumonia. For youngsters aged below 25, road accidents are absolutely the number one cause of death.

Worldwide, almost 1.3 million people are killed each year, but Malaysia stands out on the world map. For every 100,000 Malaysians, 25 die on the road, compared with only three in Sweden, and five in the Netherlands. However, this is not surprising as traffic safety issues plague many low and middle income countries.

Traffic safety is more than merely a transportation issue. It is now seen as a health, social and economic issue. This includes the damage to property values and other unnecessary costs arising from a fatal accident.

Our country has lost key people in road accidents, including lawyer cum politician Karpal Singh in April. Quite a few Malaysians would have, in the course of their lives, lost friends, family members and even neighbours in road accidents. Indeed, our roads are more dangerous that many of the things we fear, such as dengue fever, being killed in a robbery, or bitten by a poisonous snake.

On average, 18 lives are needlessly lost on the roads every day, yet traffic safety issues continue to be ignored by the public.

A decade to increase road safety

But the United Nations is taking a more proactive approach. The Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020 was launched with an overall framework for activities to take place in the context of the decade. Five categories were set for its ‘pillars of activities’ as follows: building road safety management capacity; further developing safer vehicles; improving the safety of road infrastructure and broader transport network; enhancing the behaviour of road users; and improving post-crash care.

Judging from the five pillars set by the UN, it is obvious that improvement on behaviour of road users alone won’t help much in achieving safer roads. This is despite studies indicating that the behaviour of road users is the biggest contributor to road accident cases.

But changing the behaviour of road users cannot happen overnight; it takes years of education and campaigns, as well as enforcement activities to make it a reality. Ultimately, the lifestyle of road users needs to be changed to reduce exposure and risk on the road, particularly by shifting them to safer modes of transportation.

This however, can only happen if the public transportation system becomes highly efficient, like in many countries in Europe, Japan and even Singapore. With the right policy and strong will from the government, safer and more sustainable mobility would be not impossible to achieve. Cheap and efficient mass transportation would help millions of vulnerable road users who are currently relying on motorcycles – the ones most at risk of road deaths – to shift to a safer mode.

Next, the maintenance of roads and infrastructure in Malaysia still has lots of room for improvement. We have heard stories of innocent lives lost as a result of poorly maintained, potholed roads and faulty street and traffic lights. A life lost due to the failure of the authorities to maintain the road infrastructure is one too many.

Better safety features

Nevertheless, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. While the post-crash care in Malaysia is relatively good and continues to improve, the big achievement is seen in the matter of vehicle safety. The rating of the new cars through the ASEAN New Car Assessment Programme (ASEAN NCAP) has meant car importers and manufacturers have had to raise the safety bar.

The safety ratings by ASEAN NCAP has even pushed local car manufacturers such as Proton to offer six airbags and other up-to-date safety features for its compact model, the Iriz. Other manufacturers certainly have no choice but to compete on safety as well, which would eventually protect the users better.

Despite the long journey to safer roads, it is not an impossible feat. Road safety begins with you; and no matter how safe the vehicles and the roads, nothing will change unless you choose to act safe. As for now, buckle up, drive within the speed limit, don’t talk on the phone while driving, and don’t drink and drive. Together, we can make a difference.

Yusof Ghani is a researcher with the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (MIROS)

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