Independent bureau can speed up accident probes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 September, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong urgently needs an independent bureau to investigate under one roof sea, air and road accidents. It is, for example, unacceptable that it could take a year before the release of the final report into the incident in which a Macau-bound helicopter was forced to ditch in Victoria Harbour.

A conclusive report is needed urgently to identify what caused the mishap, to help officials issue appropriate safety recommendations.

The pilot of the Sky Shuttle had to make an emergency landing in the harbour shortly after take-off on July 3 when he heard a loud bang. He, his first officer and 11 passengers were all plucked to safety.

Some smaller parts of the helicopter's broken tail section are still missing and a preliminary report from the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) has been unable to identify the cause of the incident. Meanwhile, the recovered parts, which include the monitoring system's memory card, have been sent to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Britain for analysis.

The unacceptably long time needed to produce a final report is mostly due to a fundamental flaw in our investigation system. Under the existing arrangements, sea accidents are investigated by the Marine Department, road accidents go to the Transport Department and air accidents come under the CAD.

The system is undesirable because these are all regulatory bodies. If they investigate incidents, conflicts of interest may arise; some accidents may have been due to the negligence of the regulator. Thus, it would be inappropriate to allow the monitoring bodies to investigate themselves.

Many advanced economies have set up one-stop independent bureaus to investigate air, sea and road accidents. This makes matters more efficient, and adds transparency and accountability, providing a proper platform for the public to access information.

It is time-consuming and inefficient for land, air and marine accidents to be handled by various departments.

By setting up an independent bureau, the Hong Kong government could guarantee the public's right to know, speed up the investigative process and produce conclusive and comprehensive information to improve public safety.

There are no excuses for not setting up such a bureau. Manpower should be no problem; the government can either recruit from overseas or reassign staff with relevant experience from the transport, marine or civil aviation departments. If the terms of reference, and duties and responsibilities are set out clearly, the bureau could become operational fairly quickly.

This is the best option if the government wants to improve the transport accident investigation mechanism. It is a matter of will.

CAD chief Norman Lo Shung-man would be an ideal candidate to lead an investigation bureau. He has extensive administrative experience and is familiar with aviation law and related matters.

Lo is a typical technocrat. He doesn't appear keen on the commercial development of the airport, and therefore may not be the best person to head the CAD, which is supposed to help build up the city's aviation industry. Allowing him to continue to lead the department will only stifle development and stunt growth.

We all understand the importance of putting the right person in the right job. Here's a perfect chance to right a wrong by appointing Lo to establish and head a transport accident investigation bureau.

He would no doubt help advance transport safety by leading a bureau with highly competent and independent investigators.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.