Government response to Hong Kong garage tragedy is heavy-handed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 August, 2015, 1:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 August, 2015, 1:46am

A fatal accident in a public place will invariably prompt a government review of safety regulations. The deaths of three people as a result of an explosion at a car repair garage on the ground floor of a residential building in Wong Tai Sin was bound to lead to particular scrutiny. Many lives had been endangered and preventing a repeat and potentially worse tragedy was imperative. As it is, though, the response of authorities would seem excessive.

Three government departments have sent letters to Hong Kong's garage owners informing them that residential buildings cannot be used to repair or paint vehicles. This is usual in less crowded cities, where such activities can easily be separated. But in Hong Kong, land and space shortages mean that the mix is commonplace, especially in older districts; there are about 1,300 such workshops among the estimated 2,700 in our city that have operating licences. The same constraints are why petrol stations can sometimes be found near schools.

Such close proximity requires strict government oversight and the gradual shifting of businesses using gas, petrol and chemicals to specially designated areas like industrial zones. The rarity of accidents proves that regulations and inspections are working well. In that regard, the Wong Tai Sin tragedy was not a failure of the rules - the garage had been operating illegally. If authorities had been aware that taxis using liquified petroleum gas were being repaired there, lives could have been spared and people in nearby shops, upstairs flats and an elderly care centre not put at risk.

Garage owners who have received letters therefore feel they are being unfairly targeted. High rents will restrict the ability of a number to move, while relocation could mean loss of business. Those that are able to shift warn of increased costs for customers. Separating industries from everyday life is the way Hong Kong has to move, but not in so sweeping a manner.

The process has to be coordinated and gradual. In the meantime, the focus has to be on safety and enforcement.