The courage and public-spiritedness of two men, who helped to put out the fire in a taxi in the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE) tunnel this week, are testimony to the ability of exceptional people to respond calmly and effectively in an emergency.
The fire was a double nightmare. It occurred in an enclosed space, and it affected fast-moving traffic. Had the taxi exploded, the consequences could have been catastrophic for hapless victims passing by the burning vehicle and for other vehicles close by. The chief lesson of the accident that ended miraculously with no casualties is that more needs to be done by the authorities and the motoring public alike to be prepared for a major crisis on the roads.
The protocols for handling major road tunnel incidents ought to be reviewed because time is of the essence when serious threats arise. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has clarified that it made a series of public safety announcements on media platforms as well as in the tunnel shortly after the taxi had caught fire. The fire caused an evacuation, with motorists advised to leave their vehicles and exit the tunnel on foot. Also, all the lane-use signs were lit up with red crosses, indicating that motorists should not proceed further. However, alerts given both outside and inside the tunnel might have been synchronised more closely to warn drivers of the severity of the accident. A burning vehicle in a road tunnel is vastly different from a collision between two cars that merely blocks traffic, inconvenient though it would be. Also, it cannot be assumed that drivers will have their ears tuned in to radio announcements that enable them to alter their travel routes safely on time. Clarity of messaging that drew attention to the urgency of a vehicle on fire in the tunnel would have diverted traffic. A traffic jam might have ensued, perhaps more massive than the one which did, but motorists would have been kept safer.
On their side, road users must be well prepared mentally for exigencies on expressways such as the KPE and the Marina Coastal Expressway. How to respond is a critical skill learnt best beforehand. The general expectation among drivers is that any accidents which occur will do so within a range of eventualities in which timely intervention will foreclose the possibility of disaster. This might not be possible always in an enclosed space offering limited escape routes. It was fortuitous that the taxi fire was put out before the civil defence force arrived. Motorists must be ready to help themselves before help arrives.
What also deserves investigation is the case of Trans-Cab taxis catching fire. The latest incident had several antecedents this year. The company needs to assure commuters, and the public, that it is committed to ensuring the safety of Singapore's roads.