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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ops Sikap Degenerating Into Oops! Silap!

Ops Sikap Degenerating Into “Oops! Silap!
M. Bakri Musa


It is now a practice that with every festive season the authorities would go into high gear aimed at reducing the horrifically high rates of traffic accidents and fatalities. Judging by the results however, these initiatives are more show than substance. These “Ops Sikap” (a contraction for Operasi Sikap – Operation Attitude, as in changing the attitude of road users) are now more “Oops! Silap!” (Oops! I goofed!)

There has been no change to the dreadful trend since the series was stated over eight years ago. That should not surprise anyone. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect to have different results. The surprise is that the authorities have not yet figured this out; this latest Ops Sikap essentially replicated what was done during previous twenty operations. There is minimal effort at learning from earlier experiences; the program lacks innovations.

This latest edition began on September 13 and just ended two weeks later today. It registered 238 fatalities. As with past years, the overwhelming victims were motorcyclists.

The Ops Sikap I over Christmas Holidays of 2001 saw 223 deaths, averaging about 15 per day. At the midpoint mark, Ops Sikap X covering the Chinese New Year Holidays of 2006, there were 226 deaths. Again, the average was about 15 deaths per day. With this latest Ops Sikap XX over the current Hari Raya season, the average is already 17 per day. That figure may yet climb as we expect deaths from those currently hospitalized for their injuries.

There you have it: three different festivities but same tragic consequences!

No matter how we look at the figures, there is no denying that they tell a grim story, and with no relief in sight. Yet that did not stop the Director-General of the Road Transport Department (RTD), Solah Mat Hassan, from reassuring the public that based on per 10,000 vehicles registered, the accident rate has actually declined!

The Director-General is obviously misreading the statistics. He is basing his conclusion on the annual and overall number of accidents and fatalities, not on the atrociously high spikes during the holiday seasons. To get a clearer picture of the impact of the heavy traffic of the holidays, he should be looking at the comparable two-week period immediately preceding and following the Ops Sikap. Unfortunately neither his department nor the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety (MIROS) collects or publishes such figures.

In America, heightened traffic surveillance over holiday periods extends only over a three-day period, as Americans do not have the luxury of extended holidays. Nonetheless the figures are illustrative. Take the typical three-day American Labor Day weekend. From 2003 to 2008, the fatalities nationally ranged from 473 to 508, with an average of 490. The fatalities over that three-day period represent about 13 percent of the month’s total, only slightly over the 10 percent that would be expected based simply on the prorated number of days (3 days out of 30). That represents a percentage increase of only 30 percent (from 10 to 13 percent).

The statistics look even more impressive if we look at the number of deaths in the comparable three-day period immediately before and after the holidays: they average about 423 over the six-year period. Meaning, the long holiday weekend saw the accident numbers spiked from an average of 423 to 490, an increase of only 15 percent. That is remarkably low increase considering the visibly much heavier traffic volume during the holidays.

To me, that is the more meaningful figure on which to gauge the effectiveness of the measures instituted during the festive season. Although RTD and MIROS do not collect these comparable data, nonetheless we can get a rough estimate from newspaper reports. My guess is that the figures of the comparable two-week periods before and after the Ops Sikap are considerably lower, more likely in the region of about 50, or about 3 a day. Thus the increase during the holiday season is a horrific jump from 3 per day to 15, a five-fold (500 percent) increase, in contrast to the 15 percent we see in America.

That figure that should shock everyone and push us even harder at reducing it.

There are three variables to traffic safety: the road users (drivers, pedestrians, and motorcyclists), the road, and the vehicle. MIROS listed the four E’s to better road safety: education, engineering, enforcement, and the environment. Certainly, attention to these factors would enhance overall road safety and reduce accident rates. These measures have been successfully introduced elsewhere; they are well tested and highly effective. We need not reinvent the wheel; just follow the best practices set elsewhere and modify them appropriately to suit local conditions and audience.

Take education for example. All too often public service announcements and billboards carry and repeat the same annoying message that has the effect of turning people off. “Be careful!” “Be considerate!” “Be patient!” “Use your seat belt!” I have yet to see a public service announcement that would educate drivers on what is the safe space to keep between your car and the one immediately ahead of you if you are going at 40 MPH as compared to 60 MPH. That is one example. Another would be to educate drivers on entering merging traffic and in avoiding distractions, as in using hand phones. In California it is illegal to use hand phone while driving.

Also along the line of education, in view of the disproportionate number of accidents that are alcohol related, in addition to frequent sobriety roadside checks, many judges now sentence drunk drivers to spend time visiting the morgue to see the mangled bodies caused by drunk driving. Along the same line, a night in jail is now mandatory for drunk drivers.

We have however, to differentiate between those measures that would reduce the overall accident rates (as with attention to the four E’s) versus those that are specific to days of especially high volume traffic, as during festive seasons.

Consider enforcement. On any holiday weekend, an hour’s drive on an American freeway and you are likely to meet at least three police patrol cars. Such high visibility of law enforcement personnel keeps drivers on their toes. On one particularly heavy holiday period, the highway patrol resorted literally to having convoys on the freeway, with a police car with all lights flashing leading the way. That kept everyone in line; nobody dared to speed up or overtake.

A few years ago the Malaysian police instituted a novel experiment of actually having a policeman (or woman) ride on express buses. That was highly effective. Today all lorries and express buses are mandated to have speed monitors, thus obviating the need for an on-board human monitors.

Roadside sobriety checks are now a common feature on American roads and streets during high traffic days, as with holidays and special events. It seems that if you have been “stopped checked” or seen someone subjected to it when you are driving, that has a salutary effect that seems to last. You tend to be more cautious for the rest of the trip, and perhaps beyond.

I suggest that at the next Ops Sikap, the authorities introduce some innovations. One would be to have highway convoys and another, random police checks at toll booths. I would also urge the collection of better statistics so we could draw meaningful conclusions and thus devise better strategies and interventions to ameliorate the situation. Again we need not reinvent the wheel. There are already many models in place, the one used by the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov) is one.

The tragedy to the lives lost and bodies maimed in these accidents is that the victims are almost always previously healthy and productive citizens, often in the prime of their life. The nation cannot afford such losses. While to the bureaucrats and statistic keepers Ops Sikap may be Oops! Silap!, to the families of the victims, they are needless tragedies and the beginning of their nightmares.

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