The sanctity of life on Malaysian roads

DECEMBER 18 — I was in an accident a few months back. 

I was driving to Ipoh when a big black bag appeared in front of me. Perhaps it was my medical background, or more likely from watching too much Game of Thrones, but the first thing that came to mind at 7am on a drizzly morning was a body bag.

At 110km/hour (I think), I braked hard. But since I was in the right lane, the BMW tailing me didn’t stop in time and hit me — sending my car into the middle lane. An unsuspecting Myvi on the middle lane came close to hitting me, but steered sharply right at the last second, crashing into the BMW that hit me instead.

And as I thought all was clear, a lorry came next at me. And as its big lights closed in, it veered left. Avoiding another tally to the three-vehicle accident, denying the obituary pages a black and white photo of me the next day.

The world went suddenly dark, quiet, and very still.

I remember seeing both my hands on the steering wheel. Blinking orange lights on the dashboard. Sirens, flashes of light and noise. I remember people tapping on all of my car windows. Helping me out. 

The highway patrol arrived quickly on the scene, and began clearing the mess. Making way for cars and traffic to pass; I remembered cars stopping. Camera flashes. Finger pointing. Shaking of heads.

I remember attending to one of the injured at some point. Taking his pulse, looking at his pupils, and searching for external injuries, and signs of internal bleeding. Of shock. 

Before turning to one trembling 72-year-old uncle who kept asking me whether I was alright.

I sat on the roadside, loosened my tie, unbuttoned my collar and looked up at him. Perhaps it was his worried look, if not tremors, that made me realise that I too was trembling and in pain. 

Physically from the whiplash and airbag. And emotionally at the sight of my car.

But before I could answer the uncle, a patrolman came up to us. He stopped between me and the uncle and asked, “Encik tak nampak beg hitam tu ke? (Didn’t you see the black bag?)”

I looked up at him, wondered which detective school he went to and replied, “Nampak, sebab tu saya brek (I saw, that was why I braked.)”

“Kenapa tak langgar je? (Why didn’t you just run over it?)”

I looked at him, dazed, unsure whether he too was somehow involved in the crash, thus affecting his IQ and EQ, or my concussion was just worse than I thought. 

I wanted to say, “Sebab kereta saya tak kebal (Because my car wasn’t armoured)”, but stopped just short of, “Err.”

Impatient at my apparent confusion, he asked, “Encik tak nampak ada peronda tepi jalan lambai-lambai encik ke? (Didn’t you see a patrolman at the roadside waving at you?)” 

I replied, “Tak nampak. Kalau nampak, saya mesti dah lambai balik. (No I didn’t. I would have waved back otherwise.)”

We then locked gaze. Not the romantic kind, mind you. He was big, burly. And I wasn’t in the mood. Moreover, I was trying to understand if this was just a bad joke, and I’m sure he was wondering if I needed an urgent brain scan. 

If not a slap on the head.

Only after a while, and a few more similar questions later did I learn that there was a patrolman waving for motorists to slow down. 

But at 7am, on a drizzly morning and at the side of a three-lane highway, he would have had better luck waving to get the sun up.

The toll of an accident.

WHO published a report in 2013, ranking our roads as the third most dangerous to drive on in the world, behind Thailand and South Africa. 

While the average road death is 9.3 per 100,000 population for developed nations, 18.4 per 100,000 population for middle-income nations, 24.1 per 100,000 population for low-income nations, we are at 23 deaths for every 100,000 Malaysians. 

Not only are we far from the average for developed and developing countries, it also surpasses the death rate from lung cancer at 19.1 (2014 data).

But sometimes, and unfortunately, death isn’t the only outcome of a road accident.

I was woken up many times as a houseman at night to attend to accident victims. Yes, there were the occasional Mat Rempits whose friends cheered me on behind curtains , as I stitched their friends up.

But there were also many who were permanently injured from road accidents. I remembered one who lost her left arm when her motorbike crashed into the divider, because she was avoiding a pothole. The surgeon spent about 10 hours in surgery to reattach the limb—only to remove it days later because it wasn’t viable.

She was 22.

Then there were the pakciks and makciks whose bikes skidded when going over illegal speedbumps in dark areas. Or got hit by vehicles while trying to avoid them and the now infamous Malaysian potholes.

Not forgetting the many diabetic patients, with poor eyesight who were thrown off their motorbikes from these hazards. And because their wound takes longer to heal, they couldn’t get back to work. 

And since fishermen, taxi drivers and odd job workers don’t get fixed monthly salaries, they rely on social welfare and their young school children to make ends meet.

Road accident victims extend beyond those who are injured. It affects their family and loved ones. Their friends. And as for the pain, it surpasses what is physical.

For those driving cars, it’s a matter of time before absorbers and suspension need to be replaced. 

But for motorcyclists and pedestrians, it’s their life that matters.

Enough fines. We want good roads.

The Korea Transport Institute (KOTI) published a societal impact report involving road accident victims and their families in 2013.

It shed some light on how the family and society is impacted by an accident. For instance, it takes 19.8 months for a victim to be re-employed. If the victim is disabled following the accident, then the time it takes to gain employment is 38 months, against their national waiting time of 2.8 months. 

The report also made known that 49.5 per cent of the disabled victims moved from a home that they own to one they rent.

And that 37 per cent of the disabled experienced divorces or separations after a road accident, compared to South Korea’s national average of 5 per cent.

Perhaps the numbers aren’t applicable to Malaysia, but there is a need to assess societal impact of accident victims beyond how much they are compensated and the extent of their injuries.

Because many do not realise that one of the toughest post-accident pressures on the psyche is the unexpected transition from health to “non-health”, the functional insufficiency and visual difference leading to poor self-esteem, dissatisfaction with their own state and sometimes even hatred towards themselves and even others. 

In extreme cases, this could even lead to suicide attempts. 

While enough has been said about the attitude of Malaysian drivers, with the government coming up with many, many ways to relieve them of their hard earned money, it’s high time we address the condition of our roads. 

Our hazardous roads.

And as a country that holds a giant, month-long fair showcasing achievements in building modern infrastructures, I hold the government to a higher standard when it comes to the building and maintaining of roads. 

They have no business building anything else if they can’t even get the science and process right.

Because our bones, our limbs, and lives matter. Even if the absorbers and suspensions do not.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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