On Tuesday last week, a tour bus caught fire on a freeway in Taoyuan, killing all 26 people on board. Such a tragedy calls for deep reflection on the factors that led to the fire.
A motor vehicle is a complex structure with all kinds of mechanical and electrical components crammed into a confined space. These systems are hot and greasy and when the vehicle is in motion it is often subjected to dust, friction, vibrations and high temperatures. For all these reasons, motor vehicles pose a considerable fire risk.
The regulations governing the management of transport enterprises state that bus operators should clearly mark emergency exits, including safety doors and roof escape hatches, fire extinguishers — of which there must be at least two — and window breakers — of which there must be at least three — with break points marked at the four corners of each glass window. Operating instructions for each exit must also be displayed.
To prevent fires, bus interiors must be made using fire-retardant materials that have been tested and certified.
From the point of view of fire science, motor vehicles have special fire-growth characteristics. When a vehicle fire is growing, it is usually fueled by highly flammable liquid oils that release a great amount of heat. Furthermore, the motion of a moving vehicle provides plenty of oxygen to feed the fire.
A fire burning under such conditions generates a large amount of toxic combustion and heat as it penetrates the interior of the vehicle. In a single-door bus, people must react quickly by making their way to the escape hatches or breaking the windows to get out of the vehicle.
However, this generally has to be accomplished in a very limited time amid thick smoke and in an atmosphere of panic. Fatal flashovers can easily occur and firefighters might be unable to arrive in time.
Because of the special threat that vehicle fires pose to people’s lives, it is especially important to slow the spread of the fire to make time for people to escape. Because it is not possible to install fixed firefighting equipment in the limited space of a vehicle, the materials used in vehicle interiors should have low flammability, so that even if they do start burning when they come into contact with fire, they will burn slowly, giving drivers and passengers sufficient time to detect the fire and extinguish it or escape the burning vehicle.
It is therefore important to reinforce the fire-response component of bus drivers’ professional training courses and serious consideration should be given to organizing joint inspections by highway police and prosecutors and conducting roadside vehicle safety inspections.
The authorities should review and amend their policies. It is also necessary to remind the public that strict safety regulations apply in the crowded and confined spaces inside buses.
However, given Taiwan’s traffic density, no matter what precautions are taken, last week’s bus fire will surely not be the last.
Lu Sohu-chien is an assistant professor at Wu Feng University’s Department of Fire Science.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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