On Monday afternoon, a rear-impact collision between buses and cars driving through the Hsuehshan Tunnel on Freeway No. 5 caused one of the vehicles to catch fire. Tragically, two people were killed and 31 injured in the crash.
The Hsuehshan Tunnel is the nation’s longest and is seen as a great feat of engineering, but there have been doubts about its traffic safety ever since it opened.
Departments in charge of traffic control, firefighting and road safety have done a great deal to ensure that it is safe. They have installed brighter lighting, specially designed traffic control equipment and a broadcast system, and also held safety drills in the tunnel.
At this stage, it is hard to determine whether Monday’s accident had anything to do with traffic engineering and architectural design. It could be that this kind of accident was not prepared for in safety drills. Even if this is so, the related traffic, firefighting and rescue units might still have blind spots in their emergency response procedures, due to the countless possible emergencies and unforeseen events.
Although the exact causes of the accident have yet to be clarified, it can be analyzed taking into account six major safety issues:
The first issue is vehicle speed. This is a question of driver behavior, since drivers control their vehicles’ speed. There has to be a speed limit, because accidents can easily happen if vehicles go too fast. It might be that the tunnel speed limit needs to be adjusted.
The second issue is the distance between vehicles. This issue is related to the first, and likewise has to do with driver conduct. If vehicles do not maintain a safe distance from each other, drivers have no time to brake and rear-end collisions can result. If this turns out to be one of the causes of Monday’s crash, then law enforcement agencies should take firmer measures to ensure that vehicles keep a safe distance from one another.
The third issue is smoke extraction. Monday’s accident filled a section of the tunnel with dense smoke, which impeded rescue and evacuation efforts. Consequently, it has to be asked whether the tunnel’s smoke extraction system was functioning effectively. If not, the system should be improved.
Fourth is the issue of rescue. The narrowness of the tunnel, combined with the dense smoke, certainly hindered rescuers. Questions that need to be reviewed include whether firefighters were informed about the crash in the shortest time possible and were able to reach the scene quickly. To what extent was their access impeded by traffic congestion in the tunnel?
The fifth issue is evacuation. The biggest concern for road users is whether they can quickly get away from a crash scene. It is also important to let road users know about an accident promptly, to prevent more vehicles from crowding the crash site. Vehicle congestion is likely to impede rescue efforts, which is related to the sixth issue: traffic management.
The question here is whether the traffic engineering design is good enough. Did the police’s information system quickly signal that a crash had taken place so transport police could take prompt, effective measures to control traffic in the tunnel? An effective traffic control system is essential for rescuing and evacuating people from the scene.
Correctly handling an accident is very important, but a responsible government must go further by thoroughly reviewing the incident and making any improvements necessary to guarantee safety in the Hsuehshan Tunnel.