Hong Kong prides itself on having an efficient and affordable public transport system. Unfortunately, our good reputation has been overshadowed by frequent accidents. The Lamma ferry tragedy in October and two major bus crashes over the past two weeks are sad reminders of our not-so-glowing safety record. So was a report in this newspaper about ferry crews involved in maritime collisions getting off lightly. Together, they should prompt the government to take tougher action.
Between 2008 and March this year, the city's high-speed ferries were involved in 74 collisions; most involved ferries plying routes to Macau and the Pearl River Delta. There were also 119 "contact" incidents, such as hitting a floating object or a berth. Of the eight investigations of cases publicised, prosecutions were brought in only two, with fines ranging from HK$1,000 to HK$5,000. This despite the fact that two people died and a total of 240 people were injured. The minor penalties clearly do not reflect the severity of the problem.
The Lamma ferry collision that killed 39 people has already exposed the anomaly by which compensation and penalties involving marine accidents are much smaller than those for land transport. Although there are far more road accidents than water transport collisions or contacts, that is no excuse to be lenient with vessels that break the law. An urgent review of marine safety law is a sensible step to take.
Public transport operators should remember that passengers entrust their lives to their staff once on board. It is, therefore, imperative for them to uphold the highest safety standards. Buses, in particular, require urgent attention. The number of traffic accidents involving public buses rose by 8 per cent last year to 2,629; in those accidents 24 people were killed and more than 3,500 injured. The rising trend continues this year. It could have been sheer luck that a collision during rush hour in Wan Chai last week did not cause major casualties. But, earlier, a runaway bus killed three people in a taxi after the 57-year-old driver collapsed. The tragedy underlines the need for more stringent medical check-ups on older drivers.
Taking unfit drivers off the road is just one of the many ways to improve public transport safety. Tougher penalties against drink and drug driving will go a long way to help too. Mandating safety installations like seat belts and speed meters are small measures but make our journeys safer.