ONE of the recent presidential vetoes involved a bill that would have created the Philippine Transportation Safety Board (PTSB). The proposed agency was to have the power to conduct independent investigations of transportation crashes and mishaps, whether on land, air or sea, and formulate recommendations for the prevention of such. I am hoping that the veto can be overridden by Congress or the bill refiled.
The explanation for the veto was that responsibility for investigations was already lodged with various agencies under the Department of Transportation (DoTr) such as the Land Transportation Office, Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, Philippine Coast Guard, Maritime Industry Authority, and the Aircraft Accident Investigation and Inquiry Board. There are also law enforcement agencies with responsibility for investigation such as the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation. The creation of the PTSB was therefore seen as duplicative and wasteful. I beg to disagree. Below, I discuss why a PTSB would benefit the land transportation sector; the same reasons apply to aviation and maritime transportation.
Among our many health concerns, road crash injuries and fatalities are close to the top in terms of costs to Philippine society. Every day, on average, 34 persons in the Philippines die in road crashes; the annual death toll has exceeded 12,000 in some years. The largest share of fatalities comprise persons 20 to 29 years of age — Filipinos in their prime, many of whom are young parents. Road crashes are also the leading cause of death among children. With increasing motorization, more Filipinos are at risk.
A safety board independent of the transportation agencies is needed because institutions like the DoTr or the Public Works department are not likely to find fault in their own actions or omissions, or even in those of partner government agencies. If the board is able to find ways to make our roads safer, especially for those on foot, on bicycles or in public transport (resulting in fewer injuries and fatalities from road crashes), there will be huge savings in health care costs, many times more than the proposed board’s budget.
Government agencies need to welcome impartial and evidence-based feedback on road safety. Otherwise, we will continue to hear the usual explanations from transportation and traffic officials about road crashes: poor discipline, irresponsible behavior, inadequate driver training and human error. These are true to some extent but we may be ignoring other likely causes such as faulty road design, car-oriented traffic management, lack of proper pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and unsafe vehicles.
A transportation safety board would help our agencies apply a “safe systems” approach to transportation safety, a strategy advocated by the World Health Organization and successfully applied in many countries. It is based on the premise that human mistakes are inevitable and should be expected. The goal therefore is to design transport systems and infrastructure so that they are “human-proof.” Human error, when these occur, should not result in death or major injury.
The board would also campaign for measures that protect vulnerable road users. Some examples of “safe systems” prescriptions are the lowering of urban speed limits and the prioritization of roads for pedestrians. Global best practice is to have a maximum urban road speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour (kph). At higher speeds, the risk of a pedestrian being killed or suffering major injury when hit by a car is much greater. If a pedestrian is hit by a car traveling at 80 kph, the probability of being killed is 60 percent; at 30 kph, the risk of a fatality falls to just 10 percent. With lower speed limits, thousands of lives would be saved.
Roads need to be redesigned to prioritize and protect people who are not in motor vehicles (pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users) — they comprise the vast majority and are also the most vulnerable. There are likely to be many road crashes where engineering negligence or design error is the root cause of a death or injury. In many parts of our cities, sidewalks are narrow or nonexistent, forcing pedestrians to walk on the same road space as cars. When a pedestrian walking on the carriageway is hit by a motor vehicle, it is easy to pin the blame on either the driver or the pedestrian. However, the fundamental cause of the crash might be faulty street design that left the pedestrian no option except to walk in the same road space occupied by motor vehicles. When pathways are inaccessible or dangerous due to failure to comply with or enforce regulations or laws, the negligence or dereliction of duty needs to be pointed out. A transportation safety board would help to highlight situations where travelers are placed at risk and ways to remedy such instances.
To reduce the damage, injuries and deaths from transportation mishaps, the Philippines need an agency that will go beyond the common “disiplina” explanations, will analyze the underlying reasons for transportation incidents, will conduct comprehensive studies of hazardous situations and will offer effective prescriptions. Relying on existing agencies to make our transportation systems safer has not produced the results we need. It is time to try something different.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @RobertRsiy.