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Traffic and road safety in Hong Kong

Hearing into Tai Po crash that left 19 dead told no evidence of link between part-time drivers and accidents by Hong Kong Transport Commissioner Mable Chan

Review committee chairman Michael Lunn suggests it is time for speed displays to be installed on franchised buses

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 6:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 10:47pm

Bus companies found no link between part-time drivers and road accidents, the Transport Department told an independent review committee looking at Hong Kong’s franchised bus services. 

On Tuesday, the second day of a public hearing prompted by the city’s deadliest crash in 15 years, Commissioner for Transport Mable Chan Mei-bo said there was “no information” pointing to a correlation between the two.

The hearing, conducted by a three-member committee and chaired by judge Michael Lunn, a vice-president of the Court of Appeal, was appointed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor after a fatal crash involving a KMB double-decker bus in February.

The route 872 bus, travelling from Sha Tin racecourse to Tai Po, swerved out of control and flipped onto its side while making a turn near Tai Po Mei, killing 19 people and injuring 65 others.

Police believe the bus, which was being driven by a part-time driver, was travelling faster than the road’s 70 km/h speed limit before it rolled over. 

The incident highlighted growing concerns over whether bus operators have put in place sufficient safety measures, training, support and effective management for drivers and passengers.

After the accident, the driver’s part-time status was revealed, drawing heavy criticism from major trade unions. 

The unions said while experienced and full-time drivers continued to leave the industry because of long working hours and low pay, the bus companies were hiring more part-time drivers to fill the gaps.

These drivers, who the unions portrayed as lacking experience and training, were brought in by the bus companies to overcome a shortage of manpower, and reduce the costs associated with overtime, the unions said. 

KMB suspended 234 part-time drivers for about two months after the fatal accident. As a result, the drivers formed a group to help dispel the negative impression created by the accident, and to request they be allowed to resume working. 

“Based on the analysis provided by the bus companies over the years, there is no information pointing towards part-time [bus] captains being a contributing factor to accidents,” Chan told the committee.

“There is no information revealed from the analysis [showing] a correlation between part-time drivers and accidents.”

Justice Lunn, in response, pointed out that: “Having had an opportunity to briefly go through the Forward Planning Programme papers provided by various franchised bus companies, the phrase ‘no correlation’ is repeated frequently in more or less anything, bus models, ages of drivers, numbers of hours of work.” 

Under the Public Bus Services Ordinance, franchised bus companies have to submit their five-year Forward Planning Programme on an annual basis. The programme includes proposals for service improvement and rationalisation, as well as buying and replacing buses.

Justice Lunn asked if the Transport Department would consider consulting the public on the installation of speed display units on franchised buses. 

Chan said the department would give the recommendation some thought, but said installation was, “a sensitive area” considering the concerns of the bus companies. Companies were quoted in a report submitted to the review committee as saying the device might “create conflicts and arguments between the drivers and the passengers”.

The commissioner was also questioned by Peter Duncan SC, who represents the committee, about whether the department had been leaving the problem of assaults against bus drivers by unruly passengers to the bus companies, instead of taking “specific measures” to improve drivers’ safety at work. 

As fatal Hong Kong bus crash raises transport safety questions, a survivor is ‘scarred for life’

It had been reported that before February’s accident, the driver was scolded by passengers unhappy with long queuing times. Trade unions have also openly complained about the “verbal and physical assaults” by passengers on drivers, and insufficient protection from the bus companies and the transport authority. 

KMB has promised to continue the installation of surveillance cameras on their buses and, from next month, will start installing protective shields near drivers’ seats.

Chan said the Transport Department was aware of aggression against bus drivers, and had relayed the concern to bus operators. However, according to Chan, the department “expected the operators to look into ways to address the incidents”.