At around 5.45am on Oct 24, a factory bus with 40 foreign workers on board stopped on the left lane of the North-South Expressway near the Juru toll plaza on mainland Penang, after passengers had alerted the driver that exhaust fume was spreading in the bus and choking them.
As passengers rushed out, another factory bus ferrying 17 local women workers crashed into the stationary bus, pushing it into the right lane. If not for the guardrail on the road divider, the two buses would have crossed over to the opposite lane.
The impact was so great that the rear and right sides of the stationary bus were sheared off, and the front left portion of the second bus destroyed. Both buses were reduced to wrecks but monetary loss for the owners is negligible as market value for old buses is minimal - close to scrap iron price.
But for the eight victims killed and the 42 injured in the crash, the nightmares for their families would remain as long as they wait for compensation, which may not be forthcoming.
Both drivers have been summoned earlier for driving with expired road tax and therefore the vehicles they drove were without motor insurance. The younger driver was also caught without a Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licence needed to drive buses.
In Malaysia, it is compulsory for all motor vehicles to be insured for third party injuries, and all buses and taxis for passenger liability. Those injured or their next-of-kin would have to sue the driver at fault and insurance companies would normally wait for the court to award compensation before paying out. This process normally takes several years.
But it would be pointless to sue if there is no motor insurance cover, as most drivers do not have the money or assets to settle large claims. Similar to taxi drivers, many factory and school buses are driven by the owners, unlike express, excursion and stage buses.
Even when the road tax and motor insurance are valid, the driver must adhere strictly to the terms and conditions stipulated in the motor insurance policy, as driving without a PSV licence or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or even admitting fault, may nullify insurance cover.
The collision could have been avoided if the driver of the first bus stopped his vehicle on the emergency lane instead of the left lane. He continued driving for a distance even after being alerted of exhaust fumes filling the passenger compartment.
The second driver was probably half asleep or was on a microsleep, or distracted when driving when he ploughed his bus into the stationary bus. He was shabbily dressed, wearing sandals instead of shoes, a requirement when driving commercial vehicles.
The authorities too are to be blamed. While it is common for commercial vehicle drivers exiting their jobs not to renew their vocational licence, the non-renewal of road tax should be investigated. And road tax can only be renewed if the vehicle passes inspection at Puspakom.
Any commercial vehicle that had skipped inspection and road tax renewal should trigger an alarm. The Road Transport Department should introduce a requirement for commercial vehicle owners to inform the department if they plan to stop operating any commercial vehicle.
Its enforcement officers should visit the address of commercial vehicle owners to check whether the phased-out vehicles are running without road tax and insurance, as vehicles that have skipped inspections are unlikely to be roadworthy.
But if many drivers are driving with unsettled summonses, it only shows the enforcement agencies are just as apathetic as the two bus drivers involved in the collision. One of them has three arrest warrants for violating road regulations but was able to operate unhindered.
The collision was an accident waiting to happen and tragically, the casualty was high. What is more tragic is another similar ‘accident’ could occur anytime because of the prevailing apathy.