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Traffic and road safety in Hong Kong

Three times as many car crashes involving Hong Kong’s elderly bus and taxi drivers than a decade ago

Lawmaker and trade representative back importing drivers from outside city to get young blood behind wheel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 9:04am

The number of elderly public transport drivers involved in accidents in Hong Kong has almost tripled in the past decade, but both the industry and legislators said a labour shortage made tightening licensing requirements difficult.

They instead suggested the government import younger drivers, insist on more frequent medical check-ups, and help improve working conditions to attract new blood.

According to the Transport Department, 2,466 drivers of taxis, buses and minibuses aged over 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.

The latest figures showed there were 214,648 registered public vehicle drivers over 60, including 32,647 in their 70s, 2,796 in their 80s and 42 in their 90s. They accounted for 40.8 per cent of all public transport drivers, compared with just 16.8 per cent in 2008.

There was no official record of how many over-70 licence holders were still working, but industry representatives said some professional drivers are over 80.

There is no compulsory retirement age for minibus or taxi drivers. Bus drivers from KMB, the sole public bus operator in Kowloon, generally retire at 60, but the company rehires some of the drivers over the retirement age after assessing their performance and condition, the company said. All drivers over 50 have to take an annual medical check.

New World First Bus (NWFB) and Citybus, which serve Hong Kong Island, set drivers’ official retirement age at 65, but rehire almost half of retiring drivers for up to three more years, said Chan Shu-ming, deputy director of the NWFB branch of the Motor Transport Workers General Union. All drivers aged above 65 are required to have a medical exam every six months.

Chan Fung-yuen, deputy director at the minibus drivers’ branch of the union, said accidents could be caused by factors other than age, such as the drivers’ and pedestrians’ conduct, or the weather.

But others said age matters.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai from the faculty of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong, who researches biostatistics and population health, said: “It is purely a safety issue now. The ageing of drivers is something that we have to take into consideration.

Hong Kong taxi drivers want you to pay more

“When the age is higher, the response is slower. Don’t think that as a stigmatisation. It is a fact of life.”

Frankie Yick Chi-ming, chairman of the Legislative Council’s transport panel, agreed that the rise in the number of elderly drivers involved in accidents was related to the city’s ageing society, noting that the average ages of taxi, minibus and bus drivers in Hong Kong were 58, 68 and early 50s respectively.

“The problem we are having is we have an ageing society and, on the other hand, we are short of manpower. So if you ask the people in the public transport industry, everyone will tell you they don’t have enough drivers,” Yick said.

Yuen Yeung-wai, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Taxi and Public Light Bus Association, agreed.

“Fewer young people are willing to join the public transport industry, which makes it unsustainable,” he said.

“For the safety of the public, further action from the government is inevitable if the number of accidents keeps going up.”

Yick suggested importing drivers or improving the recruitment package for public transport drivers to solve the problem. But he admitted both options were contentious, as Hongkongers may not like importing professional drivers, while “everyone would have to bear the cost” if drivers were paid more.

Yuen supported the idea of bringing drivers from mainland China, but noted the workers, who drive on the other side of the road across the border, would need to take driving lessons and learn the rules of the city’s roads.

Lam Cheuk-ting, legislator and deputy chairman of the panel on transport, said elderly professional drivers should have to prove their fitness annually, not just when renewing their licence.

At present, drivers aged 70 or above are required to submit a medical examination report from a doctor for their first renewal of a driving licence, which will be valid for one year or three years. For other applicants, the validity period is 10 years.

Similar to Hong Kong, governments in the UK, Finland, and many states in the US offer a shorter validity period and require a medical report when elderly drivers renew their licence.

When the age is higher, the response is slower. Don’t think that as a stigmatisation. It is a fact of life
Professor Paul Yip, HKU

But Singapore has stricter requirements. Vocational licence holders like public bus drivers and taxi drivers must have annual medical check-ups if they are 65 or older. They also need to pass a driving proficiency test, and a fitness assessment is required for all vocational drivers aged 70 years and above.

“We have to look at it very carefully. If you regulate it, there will be a severe shortage of drivers,” Lam said.

The Transport Department said the accident rate of elderly commercial drivers – including drivers of goods vehicles – remained stable over the past decade, and said the steady trend was related to the rise in both the number of such drivers and the related accidents.

“The government has all along been concerned about the health conditions of drivers and understands the physical fitness of motorists is essential to ensuring the safety of road users,” a department spokesman said.

The department added it had been working to improve the work conditions of public transport drivers and would amend laws to make it easier for new blood to join the industry. It would cut the number of years a person must hold a valid driving licence before they can get a commercial driving licence, from three years to one year.