Commenting on the recent accident between two factory buses that killed eight passengers and injured 33 others, Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said his ministry is mulling a limit on the age of all vehicles.
Without a doubt, newer commercial vehicles are safer than older ones if driven by the same drivers, but the difference has been narrowed with mandatory inspections at Puspakom every six months.
However, the gap between professionally trained drivers, such as those employed by Shell and Lafarge, and self-employed school and factory bus drivers is very wide.
There is also a great difference among express and excursion bus drivers. Award-winning express bus operators may have zero traffic summons, while many express buses can be seen exceeding the speed limit.
Clearly, safety depends more on the drivers than vehicles, and our transport minister should focus more on the man behind the wheel, as attitude, habit, lifestyle, mental and physical health all determine how the vehicle is driven, apart from knowledge, skills and other factors.
Vocational driving licences are issued and renewed by the Road Transport Department (RTD) under the Transport Ministry. In addition to a Competent Driving Licence (CDL) for a car or heavy vehicle, taxi and bus drivers must possess a valid Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licence, and lorry drivers a Good Driving Licence (GDL).
While CDL can be renewed for one to five years, PSV and GDL could only be renewed yearly, and is subject to passing a physical medical examination. But it is common knowledge that many medical certificates submitted for renewing vocational driving licences are fake, or without a proper examination carried out.
Many commercial vehicle drivers suffer non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure but these pale in comparison to those with defective vision or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Distracted driving as top hazard
But the main cause of accidents is the attitude and mental health of the drivers, which is manifested through their habits and distracted driving. While speeding is often believed to be the main cause of accidents, it is actually rushing, as accidents can occur at any speed.
Sadly, every year, several children would be run over by cars reversing out from homes, as parents who are rushing would not bother to check whether toddlers are safely in the house. Many accidents also occur when switching lanes in city streets, as most Malaysian motorists do not have the patience to wait in their lanes when held up by slow or halted traffic.
But the greatest danger is distracted driving. In the olden days, it was turning the car stereo at full blast. Today, it is using the phone for communication, entertainment or recording whenever the situation permits, even when driving. Then there are those who rubberneck to ogle at sports cars, women or accident scenes.
Some drivers can be distracted by engaging in deep conversation with the passengers, and missing a turn is a small matter compared to driving into a pole, divider or drain. E-hailing drivers will keep looking at the mounted smartphone for navigation or booking purposes.
Lack of commerical drivers a real danger
It is well known there is a shortage of heavy commercial vehicle drivers in the country, and many bus and lorry operators make do with what they can get. Those operating their business at low margins do not get to pick and choose drivers, resulting in the bad ones being rotated among bus and lorry companies.
Realising the situation was acute, the Transport Ministry initiated a collaboration with 10 selected driving institutes in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur last November to offer discounted packages for Malaysians to obtain the GDL and contribute to the logistics sector.
The move was immediately hailed by the Association of Malaysian Hauliers (AMH) president Nazari Akhbar, who said hauliers were grateful to the ministry for addressing their need for more qualified and skilled drivers.
He also said that successful candidates in this MyLesen GDL programme will be offered posts as professional movers in AMH-registered companies, with a monthly income of between RM3,000 and RM7,000. Some truck drivers are earning up to RM9,000 monthly.
Despite the much higher income than most fresh graduates could ask for, only about 200 people stepped forward, proving how pampered Malaysians have become, shunning jobs they consider dirty, difficult or dangerous.
Respect due for commercial drivers
During a job carnival in May, then RTD director-general Nadzri Siron said AMH is still looking for Malaysians to fill up some 1,000 driver vacancies across the nation. As such, the real challenge for the Transport Ministry is to get many Malaysians trained to become commercial vehicle drivers, so that those unsuitable are weeded out. This would boost safety and productivity.
Ironically, unemployed graduates with a degree are categorised as skilled workers in Malaysia when in fact they have inadequate skills to land a job. On the other hand, school dropouts with driving licences for heavy vehicles and training to handle prime movers skillfully are not counted as skilled workers.
In January 2014, Deputy Transport Minister Aziz Kaprawi said that the RTD may review the issuance of vocational driving licences to elderly drivers. Last Saturday, his boss Liow said the ministry is mulling on an age limit for all vehicles.
Limiting the age of drivers and vehicles should only be considered after the RTD has introduced more effective measures than the Kejara system to upgrade private cars and commercial vehicle drivers. Introducing a vehicle expiry policy will only wipe off billions of ringgit in assets, considering the huge number of motor vehicles in the country.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.