【明報專訊】THE government has published the Report of the Independent Review Committee on Hong Kong's Franchised Bus Service, which has made 45 suggestions on improving bus safety. After the occurrence of two deadly road accidents involving buses in less than two years, it is of course important to step up the related safety measures. But even more important is that the government and the bus operators must set their mindset to rights and take the initiative to enhance bus safety, rather than only following up the problem passively after serious accidents. Despite all the inadequacies of the Transport Department pointed out by the report, the authorities still deny a dereliction of duty. Such an attitude indeed needs to be questioned. Ensuring passengers' safety is the duty of bus operators rather than an act of kindness. It is unreasonable to say "there is no such thing as a free lunch" in this regard. The government has cited bus companies' need to hire more bus captains to improve safety as a reason for approving the latest fare hike. This is in effect allowing bus companies to shift their responsibility and telling the passengers to pay the bill for bus safety.
Established by the government after the repeated occurrence of serious bus accidents, the independent review committee held a series of hearings to review bus safety. The committee made many recommendations on related measures in its report submitted to the Chief Executive last month. For example, it proposed installing video cameras with audio capability at bus captains' seats and making it an offense to insult a bus captain; restricting the total driving hours of a bus captain in a period of time; stipulating a common threshold for reporting instances of speeding; and identifying suitable locations to conduct trials of "low-speed zones" in which speeds must be kept under 30 km per hour.
The report has criticised the government and bus operators for failing to adopt a proactive approach to bus safety but taking relatively more noticeable measures only after serious accidents. Government officials have shrugged off the criticisms, emphasising that they have continuously put in effort to enhance bus safety, long before the Tai Po bus accident and "there have never been any pauses in the efforts". However, the report has in fact listed examples that clearly show the government's failure to do its gatekeeper's job properly.
After the 2003 Tuen Mun Road crash in which a bus plummeted off a bridge, the Transport Department required bus operators to install black boxes on new buses. However, the committee found that despite the fast advances and quick changes in car safety technologies, in the ten years or so since then, the Transport Department had never updated the required black box specifications. Not until last year did it finally mention the latest requirements. This is sufficient proof of its lack of long-term and proactive approaches. Furthermore, the excessive fatigue due to overlong driving hours will increase accident risk. It is something that the authorities should have paid attention to long ago. But the guidelines set out by the Transport Department still permit a bus captain to be on duty for 14 hours in the so-called "special shift". This is obviously an underestimate of risks. That naturally invites doubts whether the government gives more consideration to the problem of understaffing of bus companies rather than passengers' safety.
On the day of the publication of the report, the Executive Council also gave Citybus and New World First Bus the green light to increase bus fares substantially. When explaining the reasons behind the approval, officials said aside from the fact that the two bus companies had not raised their fares for a decade, it was also because they faced an increased cost for hiring more bus captains and improving the salaries and benefits after the government reviewed the guidelines on working hours following the bus crashes. Enhancing safety measures to protect passengers is the basic responsibility and duty of bus companies. It is unreasonable for the government and the bus firms to cite the "no free lunch" logic and have the passengers pay the bill on the companies' behalf.
set sth to rights : to correct sth
dereliction of duty : the fact of deliberately not doing what you ought to do, especially when it is part of your job
shrug off sth : to treat sth as if it is not important