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Transport and logistics

Hong Kong’s KMB looking to spend HK$200 million on seat belts for older buses

Government officials feel ‘positive’ about subsidising upgrades, transport operator tells safety panel formed after fatal double-decker crash in February

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 11:00pm

Hong Kong transport operator KMB is looking into spending at least HK$200 million (US$25.5 million) to install seat belts on more than 1,000 existing buses, a panel heard on Wednesday.

Government officials felt “positive” about the idea of subsidising the upgrades, the company’s chairman said, without elaborating.

The Independent Review Committee on Hong Kong’s Franchised Bus Service, formed after a KMB double-decker toppled over in Tai Po resulting in 19 deaths in February, has resumed hearing statements from company representatives after a month-long break.

The panel was told that KMB had been looking into installing seat belts on more than 1,000 double-deckers running long-haul routes. While newer buses came with seat belts on all seats, the same was not true for older double-deckers, the company said.

According to a Transport Department guideline from 2012, seat belts are required only for exposed seats and seats on the first row on the upper deck.

KMB set up rest facilities for drivers without permission, bus safety panel told

KMB representatives estimated the cost to upgrade each old bus at about HK$200,000, meaning the price of equipping more than 1,000 buses would exceed HK$200 million.

Chairman Norman Leung Nai-pang said he had recently met transport officials, including Permanent Secretary for Transport and Housing Joseph Lai Yee-tak, and they were “positive” about subsidising the upgrade.

KMB managing director Roger Lee Chak-cheong said cost was not the company’s main concern.

“Traffic accidents are more costly than any device we install [on buses],” Lee said.

The Transport Department did not verify Leung’s remarks but said: “The government ... is open-minded to proposals that can further enhance bus safety, including the installation of seat belts.”

During the same hearing, Lee said the company had been testing a device since June designed to prevent drivers from falling asleep.

The Australian-made device was currently installed on four buses, and feedback from drivers had been positive, he added.

According to information submitted by KMB, the machine uses “advanced infrared sensors” and image processing technology to track a driver’s eye and head movements, as well as facial expressions, to identify fatigue or distraction.

If a driver falls asleep or uses a mobile device, an audio warning sounds and the driver’s seat vibrates.

Lee admitted the device might not be suitable for road conditions in Hong Kong, which require drivers to turn their heads frequently. False alarms triggered this way might disturb drivers, he said.

KMB representatives told the committee that tests would continue, and the company was considering buying more devices to enlarge the scope of the trial.

KMB unionist Kwok Chi-shing, who attended the Wednesday hearing, told the Post that most drivers were against use of the device.

While he was not involved in the testing, Kwok said, he had been told the vibration in the seat was strong, and he was worried drivers might be injured.

At the afternoon session of the hearing, Leung said the company had restructured its pay scale, effective from the start of this month.

New recruits now earned HK$23,000 a month on average, including a guaranteed yearly bonus, he said.

Another KMB representative told the committee the company was recruiting up to 30 new drivers per week, up from about 20 in the past.

In the company’s closing remarks, Lee became emotional while admitting that February’s accident had exposed KMB’s shortcomings.

“We will not let similar accidents happen again,” he said.

The company would seek to improve safety and make better use of technology, Lee added.