A radical approach to road safety is badly wanting

The number of road deaths in Malaysia is steadily climbing, despite the government spending millions and creating multiple agencies to tackle the issue. According to police statistics, the number of road deaths has increased from 6,286 in 2003 to 6,877 in 2012 while the accidents went up from 298,653 to 462,423. We have got our thinking, data systems, organizational infrastructure, policies and programs all wrong and unless we set them right we will continue to see increasing tragedies on our roads.


The word “accident” implies that it cannot be prevented. The term “crash” is more appropriate and scientific. Our government attributes the majority of road deaths and crashes to “human error”. Countries which have succeeded in road safety such as Australia and New Zealand have adopted comprehensive “systems” approach to road safety, which takes into account and accommodates “human errors” on the road. Effective land use strategies and efficient public transport systems decrease the need for unsafe private transport while safer vehicles, roads and trauma care systems protect humans from their momentary lapses on the road. These countries do not blame the poor consumers for deaths on the road. Our government, on the other hand, takes the easy way out and blames road users. The police traffic data system is geared to find out “who is to blame” and hence the “human error” causation belief.

The Genting bus crash in August 2013 was blamed on the bus driver who died in the crash. However, the findings revealed that there were 51 counts of negligence, short-comings, flaws, complacency, poor attitude of officers and poor enforcement in the transport sector which in some way contributed to the accident. These institutional and system based factors have been responsible for the loss of so many precious lives over the years. The blame was instead placed on drivers. Should this evading of responsibility by the authorities be considered criminal?

Data systems

Traffic police data under-reports the number of serious and minor injuries on the road. The number of road deaths and injuries reported by Traffic Police in 2012 were 6,877 deaths, 6,328 serious injuries and 12,365 minor injuries which give a ratio of 1:0.9:1.8.

This is a very unusual ratio. According to global experience the injured are normally several times the fatalities. For example the World Health Organization report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention 2004 for New Zealand gave the ratio as 1:15:70. Reasons for this under-estimate are lack of universal definition of minor/serious injury and lack of manpower in traffic police to investigate every crash.

A great deal of resources have been “wasted” on mathematical modelling of road deaths by Malaysian Institute of Road Safety (MIROS) and other researchers. (MIROS Report, Predicting Road Fatalities for 2020). Each model has been debunked by subsequent researchers. The truth is that all models are, at best, estimates only based on past figures.  Modelling of road fatalities in the past has shown higher expected figures (based on a “geometric” increase) than actual number of road deaths. The government was then quick to claim that the figures were lower because of “their efforts”.

Wasteful research has also been carried out to study the known exorbitant cost of road crashes and injuries. These studies and estimates have been used to justify the setting up of unnecessary transport agencies.

Organizational infrastructure

We have a Cabinet Committee on Road Safety, Department of Road Safety (JKJR), Road Safety Council (MKJR) and MIROS over and above all the other agencies. Further more the panel investigating the Genting crash has recommended the setting up of a Road Safety Board. Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) believes this Board could end up becoming another white elephant.

The role of the Cabinet Committee is important as it sets policies and directions. Vehicle safety is managed by Road Transport Department (JPJ), safety of roads by Public Works De-partment (JKR) and enforcement by the police. Land use policies, trauma care and public transport are handled by other relevant government agencies.

All that is needed is a lean road safety body to act as a secretariat for the Cabinet Committee, as is practised in Japan, where relevant ministries implement a co-ordinated plan for road safety, thus eliminating unnecessary agencies. This will also improve communications, documentation and efficiency which were found to be lacking according to the Genting bus crash report.

The functions of MIROS should be taken over by the universities so as to attract the best talents. Research among university students in all road safety related disciplines should be encouraged to nurture talent for the future.

Policies and programs

The government has never had an effective land use and transportation policy for both urban and rural areas. Public transportation lags behind needs, especially in rural areas. This may be because the government wishes to protect the unsustainable car industry.

Millions of Ringgit has being spent on media campaigns, defensive driving programs, traffic games and road safety education of children in schools. The world experience has shown none of these have been effective. Media campaigns are effective only if combined with sustained enforcement throughout the country.

The majority of traffic police staff spend their time working in offices, collecting fines. Few do actual enforcement. Do the police enforce the law irrespective of the background of the offenders?

Back to basics

• The first principle of road safety is “exposure control” or reduced need for road travel. This is only possible with proper land use strategy where schools, parks and offices are built near homes.

• The second principle is adequate and safe public transportation system both in urban and rural areas so as to discourage unsafe private travel.

• The third principle is safer roads, vehicles and an effective trauma care system.


CAP calls on the authorities to take the following steps to reduce road crashes:

1. Instead of blaming road users for crashes, we should adopt a comprehensive systems approach to road safety;

2. Traffic Police should focus more on enforcement and reduce office work;

3. Establish a small secretariat for the Cabinet Committee and many of the functions of the various transport agencies may be grouped together under it;

4. The function of MIROS should be taken over by universities. Funds should be allocated for postgraduate research;

5. Policies should focus on town planning, safe, efficient public transport and effective traffic enforcement. Campaigns and road safety education in schools should be abandoned.

Unless we rethink our approach, Malaysia will continue to see an increase in the number of road fatalities and casualties in view of our rapid unsustainable development of private transport.

Press Statement, 10 April 2014