Thursday 24 May 2012

More calls for airbags in taxis

LTA says it will study and evaluate requirement for the safety device
By Irene Tham , Miranda Yeo, The Straits Times, 23 May 2012

CALLS have intensified for all seven taxi firms to install airbags in their fleets after a fatal accident involving a Ferrari and a cab.

The ComfortDelGro taxi in the accident two Saturdays ago did not have airbags. Both the cabby and passenger died.

Currently, airbags are not mandatory and only Prime Taxi has its entire fleet of 800 cabs fitted with the device.

Cost could explain why not all the 26,000 taxis here are equipped with airbags. According to one operator, doing away with them can yield savings of 'a few thousand dollars' a cab.

The Straits Times understands that one supplier excludes airbags when fitting out new cabs for a major taxi firm.

But in the wake of the fatal accident, many people have raised the issue of safety.

In a letter published yesterday in The Straits Times, a reader urged the authorities to explain why taxis do not come with airbags. He also criticised allowing operators to import taxis without airbags when private cars have them installed.

When contacted, a Land Transport Authority spokesman said that for the safety of drivers and passengers, 'we currently have a mandatory seat belt rule' for all cars, including taxis. 'We will have to carefully study and evaluate the requirement for airbags in vehicles.'

Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of the Public Transport Council, is urging taxi companies to do the right thing. Saying he was 'shocked' that some new taxis do not have airbags, he added: 'It is logical to add airbags. The longer drivers spend on the road, the higher their risks of getting into an accident.'

Between 2007 and 2009, there were about 22,000 accidents each year involving taxis, or an average of 60 a day.

Mr Ang Hin Kee, adviser to the National Taxi Association, has written to the LTA asking for airbags to be made compulsory. 'It is part of making the taxi driver's work tool and environment safer,' said Mr Ang, who is also an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC. He added that taxi operators should work out a reasonable timeline over the next two years to fit older vehicles with airbags before these cabs are phased out in 2014.

SMRT Taxis said half of its fleet of 3,000 cabs are not equipped with airbags as they are older models, but it plans to replace them with new ones that come with airbags over the next two years.

SMART Cab said it will gradually replace its older cabs - some 400 - with new models with airbags. It has 700 taxis in total.

Despite repeated attempts to contact ComfortDelGro, the largest player with 15,000 taxis, the firm did not reply to queries from The Straits Times.

Taxi drivers and commuters said they support any move to make airbags mandatory.

Cabby To Chi, 59, said the only way for taxi operators to comply is for the LTA to mandate the safety feature.

Housewife Kenn Ng, 52, said lawmakers should make it a compulsory feature for cars and taxis. 'I've seen accidents. Injuries tend to be very serious if there are no airbags in the car.'

Fit airbags in all cars: Motoring body
Move will conform to global safety standards: Automobile Association
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 26 May 2012

THE Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS) yesterday called for all cars to be fitted with not just seat belts, but also airbags, to bring them in line with international standards.

Airbags are not a mandatory fixture now, but AAS president Bernard Tay said in a statement yesterday that they would 'ensure that the safety standards of cars allowed into Singapore meet international safety requirements'.

His call comes after a three-way crash involving a Ferrari, a taxi and a motorcycle on May 12 that left three people dead.

It has since come to light that some of the 26,000 taxis here are not fitted with airbags; the ComfortDelGro cab in that accident at the junction of Victoria Street and Rochor Road was one of them. Both the cabby and his passenger died, as did the Ferrari driver.

Mr Tay added in his statement that there was a need to 'define and establish safety standards' for the driving environment here.

He said that, beyond seat belts and airbags, other forms of technology can further improve the safety standards of cars, namely, the anti-lock braking system, lane assist system and anti-collision system.

Mr Tay disclosed that, in the interest of improving safety, the AAS is working with the Asean branch of the New Car Assessment Programme to look into introducing crash tests for vehicles sold in the region.

Under it, new cars are crashed deliberately to test how safe they are, including how well they cocoon their passengers from front, side and rear impact.

Such tests, done in the United States and Australia, have pushed automobile manufacturers and distributors into developing safer cars, he said.

In a separate statement this week, Mr Tay - in his role as Singapore Road Safety Council chairman - said the council was 'dismayed' that the discussion of the Ferrari crash had morphed into one about 'vehicle types, road users' nationalities and income status'.

He said: 'Regardless of vehicle types, we must be careful and not over-estimate the performance capabilities of our vehicles...

'Likewise, regardless of nationality or how long we have been a resident or citizen here, we must be conscious of our own abilities and capabilities as responsible road users.'

Airbags are useful but are not the cure-all
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 29 May 2012

IN THE wake of the recent high-profile Ferrari-taxi crash that claimed three lives, a number of calls have gone out for taxis to be fitted with airbags.

No doubt the clamour will intensify, as a second taxi has since been hit by another performance car that ran a red light in the same junction the last weekend.

As well-intentioned as the call for cabs to be fitted with airbags may be, it is largely misdirected.

It is doubtful whether airbags could have helped the occupants of the taxi, into which the Ferrari slammed like a missile; airbags may not have helped much in the second incident either.

The most effective airbags are the ones in front; side or curtain airbags are effective only at relatively low speeds.

Equipping each of Singapore's 26,000 cabs with, say, 10 airbags - presumably those making the case for airbags in cabs want the full suite - will cost something like $260 million. This excludes the small minority of cabs which already have frontal airbags.

It would be money well spent if the devices were effective in preventing fatalities or serious injuries on a meaningful scale.

Studies in the United States show otherwise: One by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that airbags lowered the risk of death of belted drivers by a mere 9 per cent, relative to drivers without them; for unbelted drivers, the figure was 13 per cent.

As for injury prevention, airbags alone improved risks by 7 per cent, which the safety body deemed as statistically insignificant.

But when seatbelts are also used, the risks improved by 60 per cent. This explains why airbags are known as 'supplementary restraints', as opposed to seatbelts, which are primary restraints.

Making airbags mandatory - whether in cabs or private passenger cars - should thus be weighed carefully.

The US is the only known country that has made airbags mandatory. Why that piece of legislation was passed in the 1990s is interesting. It came about because American drivers were stubbornly refusing to belt up; under half of them were doing so.

Ironically, not long after the airbag law was passed, there were cases of people being injured by airbags, and of children being decapitated when airbags inflated with force.

This was because Americans were still refusing to belt up, and car manufacturers had to make airbags that deployed with sufficient force to stop a full-grown, unbelted American from slamming into the steering wheel.

This high-intensity deployment unfortunately meant that children were injured or even killed by the bags.

Later, car makers invented 'intelligent' airbags that 'knew' how forcefully to inflate, depending on the strength of impact, the weight of the occupant and so on.

Most modern cars have also been equipped with an 'Off' switch on the passenger side, in case it was occupied by a child.

So, cost aside, implementing an airbag policy is not so cut-and-dried. At the very least, a proper cost-benefit analysis should be done before the suggestion is taken up.

Given that airbag mandates are unknown outside the US, it would appear that most other countries are unconvinced of their benefits when weighed against the cost to society at large.

It is for the same reason that commercial airliners are not equipped with parachutes. A good proportion of air crashes happen at take-off or landing - at altitudes too low for parachute use.

And if a problem occurs when the plane is cruising at 35,000 feet, the pressure, thin air and sub-freezing conditions outside would be fatal - even if passengers are well-versed sky-divers.

Besides, there is every chance that, at such a height, the pilot will be able to pull off an emergency landing.

Making airbags mandatory in Singapore could be merely an exercise in throwing money at a problem, without understanding the full implications of such a move.

In the case of cabs, it will translate into cost implications for operators, cabbies and commuters.

And if the passengers of an airbag-equipped cab do not belt up - and many do not - the whole purpose of having airbags in the first place would be defeated.

Do not get me wrong. Airbags are useful, but they are not a cure-all. It would be unwise to pass legislation on airbags without understanding the limitations of these devices.

It is just as off-base to insist on other modern safety systems such as traction control, blind-spot warning, rear-view cameras, lane-departure warning, cornering lights, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking.

At the end of the day, none of these is as significant a determinant of road safety as driver behaviour.

Again, this is not to deride technological advancements. The inventions mentioned do help - to varying degrees. In fact, Volvo Cars is aiming to make its vehicles so safe that no one shall die in a new Volvo by 2020.

And in Sweden's Vision Zero Initiative, a concept to eradicate road deaths, the emphasis lies on improvements to the design of road and road infrastructure. The premise there is that humans are not meant to travel at high speeds, and will make mistakes. But when they do, the road system and infrastructure must be forgiving enough.

A simple example might be extending the all-red phase of a signalised junction. The all-red phase, when lights in all directions are red, is now set at two to three seconds. Perhaps traffic engineers should consider a longer all-red phase, taking into account the loss in efficiency.

So, passing a law to make airbags mandatory is, in itself, not going to help much. A more holistic and useful approach would be to take stock of the road-safety situation here and to look into whether there are steps which can be taken to lower the number of accidents.

It is a much harder thing to do.

But if successful, it will have a far greater impact on road users at large - including pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, folks for whom airbags are irrelevant.

That said, taxi companies are still likely to start phasing in airbags in their new cabs - not because they want to, but because they have to. In the 'new normal', few public suggestions - even the frivolous - are ignored.

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