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Accidents and personal safety in Hong Kong

Ageing drivers are road safety ‘bombs’, Hong Kong coach operators say, pointing to red tape and lack of manpower amid criticism after recent accidents

  • City has estimated 12,000 non-franchised bus drivers, with an average age of 60
  • Bosses say young people deterred from joining industry by licence rules or attracted to ride-hailing firms
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 11:28pm

Under fire after two horrific coach accidents in the past two months, Hong Kong’s non-franchised coach industry has countered that an ageing workforce, excessive red tape and a lack of policy support are the real reasons for various road safety issues.

Several non-franchised coach operators spoke to the Post about the deep-seated problems affecting their sector as the recent accidents put the spotlight on the working conditions and well-being of coach drivers.

Calls have been mounting for tighter regulation of non-franchised buses, such as stricter rules on seat belts and driver working hours, after a crash in Tsing Yi last month left six dead and 32 injured. The 62-year-old coach driver, who was suspected to be suffering from fatigue, was among the deceased.

The Kwoon Chung coach, which was taking 36 workers to the airport, had slammed into a broken-down taxi on Cheung Tsing Highway in Tsing Yi, with the driver and three passengers being tossed out by the impact.

This month in North Point, a runaway 19-seat school bus rolled 100 metres down a slope and ran into a building on Hei Wo Street, killing four people and injuring 11. The 62-year-old driver was suspected of failing to apply the handbrake before getting out of the vehicle, which was not carrying passengers at the time.

Tang Chi-keung, deputy chairman of the Public Omnibus Operators Association, denied that working conditions were harsh for bus drivers. Instead, he argued that the real cause of road hazards was the lack of new drivers, which was leading to an ageing workforce.

“They were two single incidents. People shouldn’t blame the whole industry for these individual cases,” he said.

“The real cause is the ageing drivers caused by insufficient manpower. They are the real bombs that endanger road safety because we don’t know if the elderly drivers are suffering invisible illnesses or not,” he said.

Why work could be killing Hong Kong bus drivers – and their passengers

According to government data, the average ages of taxi, minibus and franchised bus drivers in Hong Kong were 58, above 60 and early 50s respectively. The average age of non-franchised coach drivers was 60. There are an estimated 12,000 drivers working in the non-franchised coach industry, which operates about 7,000 buses.

According to the Transport Department, 2,466 drivers of taxis, buses and minibuses who were above the age of 60 were involved in accidents in 2017, almost three times the figure of 859 in 2008. They accounted for 30.5 per cent of all public vehicle accidents in 2017.

The trend continued in the first half of 2018, when 1,240 elderly public transport drivers were involved in accidents.

Man Hoi-tik, consultant for Jtech Passenger Transport, said the entire transport industry was having difficulty hiring new blood, especially young drivers. The average age for the company’s team of 40 coach drivers is 55. The oldest is 70 and the only young driver is 26.

“Youngsters are reluctant to join this industry because they need to get a coach driving licence. They can easily get a van licence so they don’t bother,” he said.

Man admitted the working hours for tour bus drivers might be a bit long – more than 15 or 16 hours due to the nature of the operation – but added that there were sufficient breaks between each stop. Other coach drivers have 14-hour shifts but spend only five of those hours driving as they have long breaks between each journey.

“Tour bus drivers earn the most money as they have tips from tourists. They can earn at least HK$30,000 (US$3,830) per month. For peak seasons, they can even earn more than HK$50,000 a month,” Man said.

“For other types of coaches such as school buses, shuttle buses or housing estate buses, the drivers work stable hours with long breaks and comfortable conditions. Most of them earn at least HK$20,000 a month,” he added.

Man dismissed claims that drivers were being exploited by their bosses, saying coach operators were scrambling for marginal profits as operating costs were high.

“The monthly revenue of each coach is about HK$60,000 to HK$70,000. Deducting the driver’s salary, the capital cost, parking fees, fuel cost and maintenance fees, the profits are actually slim,” he said.

Witnesses recall horror of runaway school bus’ deadly descent

“Nowadays, working as a driver is better than being a boss, as even if we run a loss we still need to pay their basic salaries, without which we can’t hire any drivers,” Man said.

He added that besides their basic wages, if the drivers took extra orders, they could share 30 per cent of the income with the company.

Man noted that some drivers could not fully enjoy their breaks because they were busy finding a parking space for their coach. For this, he criticised the government for failing to provide enough parking spaces for commercial vehicles.

Tang, from the operators association, who also runs Argos Bus Services, conceded that some drivers might work several part-time shifts a day for more income.

“But this is something out of our control. We desperately need drivers, and we can’t interfere with how many jobs they work at the same time. They need to know their limits,” he said.

“The young drivers are reluctant to work for the traditional transport industries. They are all attracted by the trendy ride-hailing industry due to their flexible business nature and low capital cost. They can also evade taxes and all kinds of licensing fees,” Tang added.

“The whole public transport ecology is totally different nowadays. The lack of enforcement by the government only encourages the growth of illegal businesses. Then nobody is willing to work for the traditional transport business,” he said.

Call for parking restrictions after bus rolls down slope and kills four

Roy Tsang Kin-wai, director of Lung Wai Tour and JoJo Bus, agreed, saying that the government was suppressing the non-franchised bus industry with excessive red tape and rigid rules.

He explained that apart from a coach licence, there were different types of permits for different coach services, such as residents’ service, tour service, school service and employee-pick up service. If a coach is caught providing a service without the matching permit, it will be suspended from operation for several months.

Tsang called this requirement outrageous.

“Why can’t a licensed coach provide all kinds of passenger service? It has nothing to do with safety. Why does the government impose all these hurdles and make our life difficult?” he asked.

Tsang explained that the rules caused issues when a coach got involved in an accident or was stuck in a traffic jam, as the operator would not be able to easily find a replacement vehicle with the required permit.