The tragic tour bus crash that killed 22 people and injured 23 in Tainan County recently has severely shaken society. Many people, including bereaved family members, want to know what the real causes of the accident were.
Many people are blaming the accident on the bus' age.
Although we can't discount this factor, I also don't think we can ignore other causes, such as the driver's skills and training, the type of bus and other problems within the transportation system.
If we and -- in particular -- government traffic organizations can't thoroughly diagnose and remedy these issues, Taiwan's large tour buses will remain a risk. This can be analyzed on four levels.
First, whether or not the driver had sufficient skills and experience driving on mountain roads could be a problem. Driving on steep mountain roads is very difficult. If the driver didn't understand that he needed to shift into lower gear when going downhill instead of just riding the breaks, then he could put the bus at risk of brake failure.
I have personally experienced this, and know that drivers must rest their brakes for a while before they will work again. If the bus driver wasn't accustomed to driving in the mountains, this lack of proficiency could have led to the accident.
Therefore, drivers who don't have enough experience and skill in this area should be prohibited from driving in mountaineous zones.
Second, even if the driver's skills were up to par, problems with bus age or make could also have led to the accident. Take for example the tour bus that plunged 50m into a ravine in Nanchuang Township in Miaoli County killing four and injuring 26 in May last year.
Not only was it illegal for the driver to be operating the bus after having accumulated five infractions in the previous three years, but he was also driving a 15-year-old dual-level bus, the same kind involved in a major accident in September of last year.
Therefore, in addition to problems with the age of the vehicle and the driver himself, instability caused by dual-level buses' high center of gravity could also be one of the culprits.
Because dual-level buses are tall with a low chassis, their safety and stability is relatively low when driving in mountain areas. This is an area in which the government should set some appropriate standards for dual-level buses operating in the mountains.
Third, some people think widening the roads is the best way to stem the continuing tide of accidents, but I believe that road construction has already damaged the natural environment in mountain regions.
In the interest of protecting and respecting nature, we shouldn't follow this line of thinking. If we accept that mountain driving is difficult and that nature's beauty must be protected, then we should make a mountain driving test an important part of the licensing process.
Therefore we should provide tour bus operators with training and education on mountain driving both while on the job and beforehand. But providing driver training won't be an appealing option for money-driven bus companies, so the government will need to set up compulsory regulations.
Fourth, even though the systemic issues won't be easy to fix, they are extremely important. Two questions most worthy of consideration are why people used to driving in the US are afraid to drive in Taiwan, and why Taiwanese drivers suddenly abide by the US' strict traffic laws when they go there.
This indicates a problem with the system.
Suffice it to say that this most recent accident is tied to the culture of hiring unqualified drivers, slashing prices and disrespecting life and traffic safety that has grown up among tour bus operators. Therefore, the drivers and operators aren't the only ones to blame.
We as consumers, who often only care about price and ignore safety and quality, must also bear some responsibility, along with the government agencies in charge of transportation policy and law enforcement. It is to be hoped that the government will learn a lesson from this event.
But as the government's bureaucratic system is easily besieged by private interest groups, we can't be overly optimistic. Instead, only by actively uniting non-profit organizations and the media to put pressure on the government and interest groups is there hope for traffic safety reform.
For example, according to media reports, the rescue efforts after this most recent accident included not only the fire department and emergency response units, but also many private citizens, such as local restaurant owners, volunteer firefighters, the Tsu Chi Foundation and Consumer Foundation volunteers. This kind of assistance can make up for government inadequacies, inspire people and families, and make the public more trusting of non-profit organizations.
Yang Yung-nane is a professor in the department of political science at the Graduate Institute of Political Economy at National Cheng Kung University.
Translated by Marc Langer
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