Reducing Traffic Accidents and Deaths: Addressing Human, Environmental, and Vehicle Factors

Malaysia is very dependent on private vehicles, and therefore more efforts must be made to guarantee the health and safety of road users.

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Published in AstroAwani & theSun, image by AstroAwani.

Traffic accident-related injuries and deaths are pressing public health concern, acknowledged by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the leading cause of death among people aged 5 to 29. In Malaysia, this trend is evident, with reported traffic accident cases increasing from 545,588 in 2022 to 598,635 in 2023. Equally alarming is the escalation in fatalities, which more than doubled from 6,080 to a stunning 12,417 cases over the same period.

Apart from the tragic amount of life lost in traffic accidents, a report from 2017 stated that every traffic death cost our country an average of RM1.2 million, with RM120,000 for severe injuries and RM12,000 for light injuries, in terms of medical cost, productivity lost and other compensations.

As our focus shifts towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the issue of traffic accidents and deaths more than deserves our attention, as reducing traffic deaths is one of the targets for SDG 3 — to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

While the original target was set to halve the global number of traffic deaths and injuries by 2020, only ten countries have successfully achieved a 50% reduction in traffic deaths by 2021. Regrettably, traffic fatalities, along with the rising cases of tuberculosis, are designated as “Major challenges remain” within SDG 3. This underscores the need for intensified efforts to address these issues and turn the goal into a reality.

Tackling this issue can prove challenging given its complexity — traffic accidents can happen due to various reasons, and sometimes stemming from a combination of different causes. However, multiple studies have categorised the triggers into three primary factors: human behaviour, environment, and vehicle-related.

According to Mahat, Jamil and Raseli (2020), human behaviour is the predominant trigger of traffic accidents by a huge margin, followed by environmental factors and, subsequently, vehicle-related issues.

Human Behaviour Factor

There are five sub-factors under human behaviour: speeding, driving under the influence (DUI), cell phone use while driving, changing lanes without signalling, and drowsiness, all of which constitute violations of traffic laws.

Albeit reports from 2022 claimed that fatal accidents caused by drunk driving between 2011 and July of 2021 are only 69 cases, Mahat with colleagues maintain that drunk driving or DUI is the primary cause of accidents under the human behaviour factor.

For less serious offences like speeding, the punishment typically entails a fine. However, for more serious violations such as DUI, individuals may face not only hefty fines but also the possibility of imprisonment.

However, fines for speeding or various other offences often amount to nothing due to the lax enforcement by authorities. More often than not, people who broke the law and received summons disregard paying their fines altogether. There are due dates for fine payment, there are typically no consequences even if the due date is long past. This laxity is evident in the frequent discounts offered on summons, aimed at attracting offenders to settle their long overdue fines.

Law enforcement must be much stricter to ensure compliance with fine payment deadlines. While consequences such as blocking individuals from renewing road tax or issuing arrest warrants exist, their effectiveness remains questionable.

On top of the lax enforcement by the authorities, bribery among traffic police is also a major concern. Just earlier this February, ten officers manning a roadblock in Petaling Jaya were investigated over suspicion of corruption, after one was found in possession of RM3,000 in cash during a spot check.

Therefore, it is certainly a very positive development that the police will soon be equipped with body cameras. A full rollout of the police body cameras is expected to be achieved in the first quarter of 2025, and routine and random inspection of the footage must certainly improve transparency and reduce the amount of bribery among police.

Furthermore, policymakers should explore the use of positive reinforcement to incentivise compliance with traffic rules. After all, positive reinforcement has been consistently proven by countless psychological studies to be a better way of modifying behaviour. For example, the government could consider providing incentives such as road tax exemptions or waived license renewal fees for drivers who have not violated any traffic rules over a designated period of time. Additionally, offering incentives for vehicle insurance renewal could further encourage compliance.

Environment Factors

The environment-related aspect is further categorised into four sub-factors: weather conditions, lighting conditions, animal crossings, and adverse road and traffic conditions. According to Jantan et al. (2020), the main threat of animal and vehicle collision arises from encounters with cows and buffaloes and further highlighted that a majority of these accidents occur at night, particularly in rural areas, which are also often characterised by adverse road conditions.

Free-roaming livestock is always a major concern and a safety hazard for road users, where even a train was involved in an accident that killed 14 cows, and it is reported that this is not the first incident at the location.

Under the Local Government Act 1976, local authorities have the authority to prohibit the keeping of animals on premises if it is deemed that their presence is likely to cause nuisance, including posing a risk of injury or danger to health or property. However, again, due to the lack of enforcement, many livestock owners do not oblige to the rules and continue to act recklessly with impunity.

In terms of low lighting conditions, it falls within the responsibility of the local government to install additional or upgrade existing streetlights to more efficient and powerful LED fixtures. For instance, Petaling Jaya initiated the upgrade of all its street lights to LED lighting in 2022, with the aim of completing the transition for all street lights within a three-year timeframe.

As for the adverse road conditions, it is the Public Works Department’s job to fix them. One of the most common examples of adverse road conditions is potholes, and it has led to countless deadly accidents over the years. However, the current efforts to repair potholes are insufficient.

The Ministry of Public Works has made some improvements over the years. The launch of the MyJalan mobile app, which allows people to lodge complaints over adverse road conditions, has received 5,836 complaints as of December 6 2023. Around 1,532 of these complaints pertained to roads supervised by the ministry itself, with around 1,203 complaints resolved. However, there is more to be done to improve road users’ safety, as evidenced by numerous reports of individuals who have had to personally finance road repairs.

Vehicle Factors

Within vehicle factors, three sub-factors include brake failure, tyre failure, and steering control, all of which constitute mechanical failures and are mostly avoidable if the vehicle owner performs routine maintenance checks.

While commercial vehicles are required to be inspected by Puspakom every six months, there is no such requirement for private vehicles, unless the owner is trying to sell them.

Vehicle factors rank lowest among traffic accident triggers, implying that vehicle failure contributes the least to accidents. However, this does not diminish its importance. Routine vehicle inspections should be a norm for all vehicle owners, especially considering Malaysia’s lack of an age limit for private vehicles.

Fortunately, Malaysians are responsible regarding vehicle inspections, often having their vehicles inspected before returning to their hometowns for holiday celebrations. Positively, Puspakom even offered free inspection for private vehicles before Aidilfitri in 2023, to further promote voluntary vehicle inspections.

In the final analysis, the common underlying issue, whether it pertains to human behaviour, environmental conditions, or vehicle-related factors, is the absence of effective enforcement and strategically designed incentives to promote desirable responsible conduct. Addressing this issue requires policymakers to devote more time to deliberating on appropriate measures. Drawing insights from psychology and modern technology while understanding the individual factors that commonly trigger traffic accidents, as discussed above, provides the government with a clear picture of the concerns at hand and what needs to be done to ensure the safety of people traveling to their destinations.

SDGs serve as guiding principles aimed not only at enhancing sustainability but also at improving the quality of life globally. There is no doubt that Malaysia is very dependent on private vehicles, and therefore more efforts must be made to guarantee the health and safety of road users.

Chia Chu Hung is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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