Practical solutions needed for safer highways

COMMENTARY

In response to the common practice of sleepy lorry drivers stopping their vehicles in highway emergency lanes to take a nap, Road Transport Department (RTD) director-general Datuk Shaharuddin Khalid said they were breaking the law and could cause harm to other road users.

He said under ruling 10B Traffic Laws 1959, lorries and buses must have a second driver if driven for four hours straight or more than 300 km, and drivers are prohibited from driving more than eight hours within a 24-hour period. If they are sleepy, the co-driver can take over and citing too sleepy to continue driving is inexcusable.

He disclosed that RTD, the police and highway authorities have been carrying out operations along the highways regularly, but to no avail, and warned that RTD would take action to put an end to the menace of parking in the emergency lane.

But I find the rationale flawed and rule antiquated, which could be based on the Road Traffic Ordinance of 1958 or Federal Roads Act 1959, 23 years before the Kuala Lumpur–Seremban Expressway, the first completed section of the North–South Expressway, was opened in 1982.

If so, RTD ought to modernise road transport laws, including road tax, which should be charged according to vehicle weight and not engine size, as many cars today use small but powerful turbo-charged engines, or are hybrids running on both engine and battery, and some fully electric.

Also, there is no need to stipulate that a second driver must be provided for lorries and buses that are driven for four hours straight or more than 300 km. A private car driver may do so in an emergency, but not commercial vehicle drivers, as they are used to the routine of frequent rest stops for toilet breaks and refreshments.

Commercial vehicle drivers normally do not drive more than eight hours within a 24-hour period, but they would be forced to if a co-driver is imposed on them, as in long-distance tour and express buses.

With two drivers on board and taking turns to drive, they could be leaving Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru, Penang or Kota Bharu in the morning and returning overnight. In theory, a sleepy driver could be relieved by the other.

However, most drivers feeling sleepy are unlikely to stop immediately but would try to make it to the next stop, and accidents could easily occur when they fall into microsleep for a few seconds. If the co-driver managed to take over the wheels, he too could be sleepy if he had not been sleeping earlier.

And if the co-driver had been sleeping or half asleep, could he be wide awake suddenly to handle the bus safely? Imposing the requirement of two drivers on board long-distance buses had only resulted in two sleepy drivers working together on double shift over 16 hours.

On the other hand, a fully rested driver could easily make a 400km trip, with regular rest stops for both him and the passengers, making the journey much safer. Upon reaching the destination, he could find proper sleep in a hotel room, or better still in a sleep pod that is cheaper, soundproof and can be totally dark.

Likewise, the same practice for lorry drivers on long distance trips without making co-drivers mandatory. Frequent checks on the two-driver requirement affect not only the drivers but also transport companies and their customers. It will have an impact on the economy and increase opportunities for corruption.

Regardless of private or commercial vehicles, day or night, any driver overwhelmed by sleepiness should immediately pull over, as continuing to drive would endanger himself and other road users.

If too many vehicles, particularly heavy lorries, are frequently parked on highways’ emergency lanes with drivers sleeping, then more rest stops must be built or parking lots for current ones increased. If at all space is limited along highways, heavy vehicles parking yards could be built just off the entrance and exits of expressways and provided with shower facilities and sleep pods.

Transport companies too must be held accountable for the conduct of their drivers, which was espoused in 2011 by former Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) chairman Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, who announced that the “operator licence” for all operators of land public transport and goods vehicles will be introduced in 2012.

He rightly said that it would make law enforcement more efficient and effective, as action will be taken against the licensee and not the vehicle. Regardless of how transport companies compensate their drivers, they should exercise full control, as goods carried may be worth a considerable sum, which could be lost through theft, robbery or hijack.

As such, trips are planned and most lorries are tracked using the global positioning system (GPS), and some fitted with dashboard cameras and rear facing ones, plus in-cabin cameras which allow the fleet operations centre to monitor the driver in real time.

To prevent or reduce lorries from being parked in the emergency lanes at night, the authorities must engage with transport companies, as the traditional practice of mounting joint operations against drivers had only produced temporary results.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.