National Transportation Safety Board must not be another toothless tiger

I welcome the announcement by Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai on the establishment of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday, but I have huge reservations about its effectiveness and independence.

Based on the Ministry’s track record, we have reason to believe that this new Board will just become another toothless tiger.
Malaysia has the highest per-capita-road-death ratio in the world and road safety is one of the issues that I am personally most concerned with. Even the Ministry is painfully aware of this unfortunate statistic. As Road Transport Department Director-General Datuk Seri Ismail Ahmad famously said in an Astro Awani interview, “we want to see only 5,358 people dead (per year, in road deaths) approaching the year 2020.”

I have three points to make.

Before formed NTSB, heed the Genting Crash Report first

First, unless those implicated in the Genting Crash Report, including Genting Malaysia, Road Transport Department (JPJ), and Puspakom are held responsible, reprimanded and punished, the proposed NTSB will not inspire any confidence.

The Report was prepared by the Independent Advisory Panel to the Minister of Transport, to examine the 21 August 2013 bus crash at KM 3.6 Genting Highlands-Kuala Lumpur Road, the nation’s deadliest bus crash that claimed 37 lives.

I have repeatedly called for the Genting Crash Report to be debated in the Parliament. Despite its shortcoming, it is still the best and most candid assessment of how roads are managed and governed in Malaysia.

If the Genting Crash Report – the most comprehensive report on the nation’s worst bus crash disaster – could be left unheeded and treated just as a stack of documents “for the record”, we are loathe to predict that NTSB is doomed to become another toothless tiger.

To be effective, NTSB must be made accountable to Parliament

Second, the key word to NTSB is “independence”. As such, the Board should be made accountable to Parliament alone, not the Cabinet and Ministry of Transport.

The Genting Crash Report recommended that the proposed NTSB to be accountable to the Cabinet. The United States’ NTSB, which the Malaysian proposal got its idea from, is responsible to the Congress and jealously guards its independence.

If the NTSB is only made responsible to the Cabinet and Ministry of Transport, there will be no transparency and no opportunity for check and balance, since the entity that NTSB reports to will be the same entity that established it, thus undermining its ability to be independent without any vested interest.

Creating a new Board will not solve the problem

Third, every road death is one too many. NTSB is no silver bullet, the Ministry and the Government must do a lot more to reduce road deaths.

If creating new Boards and Bodies would solve road transport problems, we should be way ahead in finding solutions, since we already have multiple agencies in existence, such as the Ministry of Transport (MOT), Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD), Road Transport Department (JPJ), Malaysian Road Safety Department (JKJR) and the Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros).

Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai insists that the new Board’s scope would not overlap the functions of existing agencies. He claimed that the board’s responsibilities would include looking into how road accidents nationwide could be reduced and to advocate road safety.

If the existing agencies do not even take heed the recommendations of the Genting Crash Report -commissioned by its own Ministry- would the addition of another Board make any difference in terms of read and tangible changes to improve our transport safety?

Don’t pick and choose, Liow

Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said the establishment of NTSB is a follow-up to Genting Crash Report. However, I would like to remind the Minister that the Genting Crash Report must be read in its entity and not in piecemeal fashion.

Why is Liow choosing to implement only this part of the Genting Report and ignoring the other recommendations contained inside? The Genting Crash Report made the following damning assessments which should be taken very seriously.

“3.5.1 Top management of GHT (Genting Highland Transport) demonstrated poor commitment on managing safety aspect of their operation and compliance with OSHA ICOP 2010 was not satisfactory.

3.5.2 GENM (Genting Malaysia) failed to take adequate proactive actions to rectify road safety issues and to further enhance the safety of their road. A second visit to the crash site discovered that even the crash debris were still visible in the ravine.

3.5.3 The Panel is deeply concerned that the top management of certain government departments and agencies failed to accord public safety as their top priority and demonstrated lackadaisical attitude towards improving road safety while performing respective functions and responsibilities. With regards to DOSH, the Panel noted that DOSH was not assuming full responsibility in managing occupational road safety and health, and instead attempting to delegate its power to other authorities.

3.5.4 There was no initiative taken by any relevant authority to gazette the posted speed limit for the purpose of enforcing over-speeding along the Genting Road. Furthermore, none of the enforcement agencies initiated such an effort, although it was claimed that numerous enforcement activities had been conducted along this road.

3.5.5 There were clear evidences on blacklisting of the Crashed Bus on the RTD’s official website. However, it was denied by the said authority stating that it might have been due to discrepancies between the RTD database and the web server. Hence, the Panel is very concerned about the poor handling of technical operation’s issue by RTD. The Panel believes such contradiction, if true as claimed, is not a coincident and an isolated case.

3.5.6 Both RTD and PUSPAKOM had poor safe keeping of documents and records. The important documents and records related to the Crashed Bus could not be produced by RTD as it was claimed that the documents were destroyed by white ants. There was no further countermeasure to retrieve the entire content or partially. As for PUSPAKOM, they only keep their detail inspection records from 2010 onwards. It was claimed that there are no means to trace the earlier inspection details, including the technical contents of any earlier approval.

3.5.7 PUSPAKOM demonstrated its lackadaisical attitude in performing vehicle inspections where unrealistic data was recorded throughout the years for the Crashed Bus. PUSPAKOM did not take any appropriate action to identify and improve such shortcomings. The Panel believes this is also not an isolated case.

3.5.8 The absence of the DG of PWD for the interview session without any notice is not acceptable by the Panel. The DG had further demonstrated his low priority and seriousness towards road safety by assigning one of the Senior Principal Assistant Directors to represent PWD, and he could not provide any clarification on important issues sought by the Panel.”

What action has been taken by the Ministry to ensure that these specific recommendations of the Report have been addressed and dealt with?

Heads must roll and authorities must take to task those in Genting Malaysia, Genting Highland Transport Sdn Bhd (owner of the ill-fated bus), the Road Transport Department, the Public Works Department, and Puspakom if the Ministry of Transport is serious about the Report and its recommendation to form the NTSB.

Clearly, Liow is only choosing the “safe” part of the Genting Crash Report and ignoring the most crucial parts which require political will to ensure no recurrance of massive bus crashes.

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