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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Continuing Carnage of our Carriageways

[Note: I wish all my readers a safe and pleasant holidays for the coming Hari Raya 'Idilfitri and Deepavalli. May you enjoy and share the blessings with your friends, colleagues and loved ones. Sadly, the reality for many Malaysians especially with the rush to "balek kampong" is the continuing carnage on our carriageways. May Allah spare you and your loveds ones such a fate. M. Bakri Musa]

[Reposted from SEEING IT MY WAY, M. Bakri Musa (Malaysiakini.com) October 18, 2005]

The Continuing Carnage on our Carriageways

The human and economic costs from the continuing carnage on our carriageways are lost behind the horrific daily headlines of smashed vehicles and mangled bodies.

The human toll is unquantifiable. There is no way to measure the grief of those who have lost their loved ones, or the pain of those maimed. The economic consequences can be estimated, and that alone justifies making concerted efforts to address the issue.

As a surgeon, I am fully aware of the human dimensions of such tragedies. Years back during Ramadan, a car with four Indonesian students crashed on a dangerous highway outside my town, killing one of its occupants. The police had difficulty contacting her next-of-kin. Fortunately, I was able to help.

After introducing myself as a surgeon calling from a hospital in California, the mother’s immediate plea was for me to say that her daughter was fine. My slight hesitation in replying conveyed the tragic news. I confirmed her worst fears. After the quiet sobs, she pleaded that I say a prayer for her daughter. I did.

After three decades as a surgeon, I have seen thousands of such scenes, or variations thereof. I have also contributed academic papers on the topic.

The economic costs in property damages are huge, but miniscule compared to the expenses of medical care and rehabilitation. The loss of potential income of the dead and maimed in turn dwarfs those medical outlays.

The costs of improving that highway near my town have been recouped many times from the savings in not having to care for the injured.

Unfortunately, like other major problems in Malaysia, road safety gets the occasional brief attention from the leaders in the form of speeches at important gatherings, followed by a spate of commentaries. The problem is then considered solved, and conveniently forgotten.

In my talks to Americans posted to Malaysia, the one topic I emphasize is personal safety, in particular, road safety. By whatever measure – relative to the population, miles of road, number of users and vehicles – Malaysia’s road accident rates are among the highest, many folds higher than America’s.

The roads, the vehicles, the users

We can learn from others. Accidents do not just happen; we can plan, practice and teach road safety. There are three variables: the roads, the vehicles, and their users.

I am appalled at the lack of basic safety features on Malaysian roads. Stretches of busy highways do not have safety medians to prevent head-on collisions. Busy intersections have short exit and merge lanes, causing unnecessary and dangerous backups. Road signs are not clear, and when there are signs, they are often obscured by billboards or overgrown trees. Curves are not adequately banked. There are no “smart” lights designed to change when there is no traffic in that direction. Intersections with “round abouts” and “stop” signs are overloaded.

These are all elementary stuff, written in all road design textbooks. If it is too expensive to send our engineers abroad to learn these safety features, then get those experts to Malaysia to teach ours.

America too experienced horrendous accident rates in the 1950s and 60s, soon after the completion of the interstate freeway system. Since then the designs have improved considerably, and so have the accident rates.

Two developments occur in tandem: better-made cars with safety a priority, and improved driver education.

Today’s cars come with safety belts, air bags, antilock brakes, and sturdier frames. Consumer advocates like Ralph Nader did much to put safety a priority in the design and manufacture of cars. America’s generous tort system ensures that manufacturers would pay a heavy price for neglecting the safety of their products.

Car mechanics are certified and liable for their work; hence they use only genuine parts. A jury-rigged brake job may suffice for a leisurely drive in the kampong, but deadly on the freeway. Cars are inspected annually for smog emission, giving mechanics an opportunity to warn owners of worn brakes, bald tires, and other potential hazards.

Drivers too have improved their skills, with driver education now taught in schools. Senior citizens and those with visual problems and medical illnesses like diabetes and seizure disorders require medical clearance before getting their driver’s license. There are regular public service announcements that give useful road safety tips like keeping a car length distance from the car ahead for every 10 MPH of speed.

Drivers are educated that there is a definite delay in the human response time. At a leisurely 30 MPH, it is inconsequential; on the speeding freeway, it could be fatal.

The lethal combination of alcohol and driving is constantly emphasized, and reinforced by rigorous random roadside stop checks. Malaysia fortunately is mostly spared this particular hazard. An unknown one lurks, however: drugs.

Recent rapid increases in gas prices have a safety bonus; drivers are driving less and slower.

System Error of Pervasive Corruption

Improvements in roads, cars and users would all be for naught if the entire system malfunctions. The greatest contributor to system failure is pervasive corruption.

Corruption in awarding construction tenders resulted in crashed flyways, collapsed bridges, and below-specifications highways, not to mention bloated costs. Without corruption, the money saved could be used for improved safety measures.

Corruption in the Road Department resulted in “Kopi oh!” licenses, a hazard for their holders and others. Perverted national priorities allow the national car manufacturers to ignore safety in their products. This in turn encouraged foreign manufacturers to dump their defective cars onto local markets.

Rampant corruption among enforcers, in particular the traffic police and road department personnel, contributes and aggravates the problems. Traffic violations from speeding to overloading trucks are solved at the “local” level. Violators and enforcers mutually benefit from such corrupt exchanges, but society pays a horrific price.

Overlapping jurisdiction is another factor. The Road Department inspects commercial vehicles; the traffic police have no mechanics to inspect dangerous vehicles already on the road. In America, unsafe trucks are pulled off the road immediately by the highway patrol until the problems are corrected, imposing a double burden on their owners with fines and loss of use; likewise with overloaded trucks. These are effective deterrence.

There is more to solving the safety problem than endless exhortations for drivers to be careful. Human considerations aside, economic imperatives demand that we solve it aggressively and in its totality.


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