Minibuses' high crash rate fails to spur action
The accident rate of public minibuses is 7.5 times that of all other Hong Kong vehicles, a statistic that translated last year into 21 people killed and 187 severely injured.
Despite the alarming figures, the Transport Department has dragged its feet on passenger safety.
It still allows 45 per cent of the minibuses to operate without passenger seat belts and has been slow to insist minibuses are equipped with speed limiters and black boxes, senior investigation officer Denise Wong Wai-fan of the Ombudsman's office said yesterday.
The office said the accident rate of public minibuses was 255.2 per 1,000 minibuses last year, compared with 34.1 per 1,000 for all vehicles.
There are 4,350 public minibuses running across the city - only 0.76 per cent of all Hong Kong vehicles - but in 2008 one in every 20 accidents involved a minibus.
Wong noted that the minibus was the city's most popular mode of public transport after the MTR and buses, carrying 1.85 million commuters a day. In some communities it is the only form of public transport.
In response, the Transport Department said it had increased the number of traffic light surveillance cameras across the city by adding 59, for a total of 155, since Monday for 24-hour monitoring, and had upgraded those already set up. The department believed this could help improve the situation. It also said it would propose legislation in 2010-11 requiring minibuses to install speed limiters and black boxes that record data to tell investigators how vehicles were being driven or how accidents occurred. It would also study the Ombudsman's report carefully.
Minibus safety has long been a serious concern for the Ombudsman's office. In January, Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin announced that one in four minibuses was involved in an accident in 2008 - a rate seven times that of vehicles as a whole.
Minibuses are notorious for speeding and violating traffic regulations, as the drivers are often self-employed and rent the vehicle to make a living.
In July last year, the Transport Department announced it would require speed limiters on all minibuses by September next year. However, the Ombudsman said the department had been 'passive' and for years had not followed up suggestions to install black boxes.
Although it has been compulsory since 2004 for all new minibuses to have seat belts, only about 15 per cent of the old ones have belts. At this rate, the city would have to wait at least eight years for all old minibuses to be phased out and be replaced by new ones with seat belts.
'This puts lives at risk and is unacceptable,' Wong said.
The Ombudsman's office also found that only 10 per cent of minibus drivers had received continuing driver training to improve their skills and attitude.
Taxi and Public Light Bus Concern Group chairman Lai Ming-hung said the government should use both a 'carrot and stick' to force minibuses to upgrade their safety features.
Lai said the government could provide incentives, such as subsidies for minibus owners to change to new, safer vehicles.
At the same time, drivers should be required to pay for their insurance, giving them an incentive to drive more cautiously.
Minibuses are less than 1 per cent of the vehicle fleet, but in 2008 the proportion of accidents involving minibuses was: 5%