Parliament: Owners of heavy vehicles should be responsible when mechanical failures lead to fatal accidents, says Murali Pillai

Common types of mechanical failures include malfunctioning brakes, faulty steering systems, faulty headlights or taillights, and tyre and wheel issues such as worn tires and overtightened wheel bolts, according to Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok).
Common types of mechanical failures include malfunctioning brakes, faulty steering systems, faulty headlights or taillights, and tyre and wheel issues such as worn tires and overtightened wheel bolts, according to Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok).PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Owners of heavy vehicles should be held responsible in cases where mechanical failures in their vehicles stemming from poor maintenance lead to accidents.

An adjournment motion filed by Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) at the end of Parliament's session on Monday (Aug 6) called for this.

Citing cases from last year, such as a dislodged wheel from a trailer truck hitting and killing a motorcyclist in March, and brake failure on a private bus leading it to hit and kill a cyclist in July, Mr Murali said that there is a gap in the laws governing this area.

"In such fatal accidents caused by mechanical failure, as opposed to driver negligence or recklessness, these are often ruled as misadventures and there is little that the authorities can presently do to impose criminal liability for the accidents, though civil remedies such as insurance claims remain available," said Mr Murali.

He called the state of affairs "unsatisfactory" as those responsible for maintaining the vehicles' parts escape criminal liability.

Common types of mechanical failures include malfunctioning brakes, faulty steering systems, faulty headlights or taillights, and tyre and wheel issues such as worn tires and overtightened wheel bolts, according to Mr Murali.

He said there are three current laws covering different aspects of road safety involving heavy vehicles, but none of them address this particular aspect.

The Traffic Police focuses on the role of the driver under the Road Traffic Act or sometimes the Penal Code.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) enforces regular inspections for the vehicles under the Road Traffic (Motor Vehicles, Construction and Use) Rules. Mr Murali said that while trailers, goods vehicles and buses are subject to mandatory inspections every six months to a year, depending on their age, they may not be properly maintained until just before the inspections.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has oversight over workplace safety, including vehicle-related accidents which lead to workplace fatalities. However, the Workplace Health and Safety Act is focused on addressing the welfare of people at work in workplaces, and does not cover situations where vehicle-related safety lapses cause injury or death to members of the public.

Mr Murali said that the police and MOM's recommendations for heavy vehicle owners to maintain their vehicles according to manufacturers' recommendations, and hold daily checks before starting work, are limited in effectiveness as they are not mandatory.

"It is time for us to close these gaps, such as to mandate compliance with the manufacturer's maintenance schedule, the keeping of maintenance records and the conduct of daily pre-operational checks," he said.

He said imposing criminal liability on owners and operators of heavy vehicles for mechanical failures that lead to fatal accidents, would deter them from skipping the proper checks.

Mr Murali suggested implementing regulations that cover operators of heavy vehicles too, and to make it easier to impose criminal liability on corporate bodies for not maintaining the critical component parts hence leading to mechanical failure and causing fatal accidents.

In response to the Adjournment Motion, Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary said on top of the regular inspections, LTA and the Traffic Police also call up vehicles for ad hoc inspections, to enforce their safety and road worthiness.

Statutory lifespans are also imposed on heavy vehicles.

"Except for public buses, most heavy vehicles are subject to a maximum statutory lifespan of 20 years, after which they must be deregistered and can no longer be used on our roads. Public buses are subject to a shorter statutory lifespan of 17 years, because they're very heavily used," explained Dr Janil.

Dr Janil said it was "not necessary to be prescriptive" about the maintenance of the heavy vehicles, given that the inspection regime is "very frequent and stringent".

"We take an outcome-based approach which balances the imperative to create a safe working and commuting environment with the regulatory burden on the vehicle owners," he said, adding that this allows for the quick adoption of new technologies.

Dr Janil said that in 2016 and 2017, there were 85 fatal accidents involving heavy vehicles on roads and in work sites, of which fewer than 5 per cent involved mechanical failures.

"More often heavy vehicle accidents are caused by the driving behaviour. Even as we take errant drivers to task, it's even more important that we continue to work with companies to promote a safe driving culture, and ensure that drivers have sufficient rest," he said.