When will we ever learn?

Accidents happen all the time — on the roads, in the air and in the rivers at home. Often, an accident happens when you least expected it, but sometimes you could more or less predict it might occur. That’s when you feel some strange uneasiness, ‘something’ telling you to take a precaution.

Among the Dayaks who still hold on to traditional beliefs, this enda lantang or ketoh-ketoh feeling (not feeling nice) would call for a postponement of an ongoing activity or even the cancellation of a journey.

Prevention is better than cure

Yet, against this time-honoured wisdom — some people call it superstition — there’s the belief that a mishap won’t happen. So precautions are thrown out the window.

However, sometimes, even though precautions have been taken, accidents just happen. That’s probably fate, for want of a better explanation.

The Anap Tragedy

The great boat tragedy on the river in the upper Tatau recently will be a topic of conversation for a while; but human frailties are such that it will be forgotten because we want to forget it. There have been accidents involving boats in the Kemena, the Rajang and other rivers with loss of precious lives before this. How many of those do we remember? When will we ever learn?

Our condolences

To the bereaved relatives and friends of the victims, it is not too late, through this column, to convey the heartfelt condolences of the readers, wishing boat accidents of this magnitude will not happen again.

While the public have been waiting for the release of the investigators’ findings on the cause or causes of that accident, the skipper of the boat involved was brought to court this week for some alleged offence under the Penal Code, but that’s a separate exercise.

Wise men and women that we have become, all now suggest ideas for improvement to river traffic, especially the regulations for fast boats on our rivers, without waiting for the verdict of the case. The trial will take some time.

Meanwhile, however, we would like to know about safety features available in the other boats speeding up and down our main rivers right now. The authorities and the boat operators should tell the public that all the safety features are in place in those express boats. Christmas holidays are coming and those boats would be overloaded. What measures are being thought out to prevent accidents?

Proper use of life jackets

The suggestion that passengers must put on life jackets while travelling is only part of the story. Life jackets would be useless inside a boat with only exits at the front and with small windows securely sealed all around for the purpose of air conditioning.

Why is it necessary to air condition a fast boat? Is not the breeze good enough for comfort on a hot day? Surely a competent engineer could come up with a system of air ducts and vents that makes use of the draught while the craft is travelling?

Instruction on the proper use of life jackets is important. That’s the responsibility of the operator of the particular boat before it departs. The life jackets must be easily reachable under the seat and can only be used when out of the boat. In the same vessel there may be mothers with babies or young children — they should be seated next to a window wide enough for mother and baby to go through. The boat’s operator should have the authority to enforce this ruling.

Those jackets are more practical on an open vessel and a must for all passengers.

Passenger manifest

A list of passengers should be made mandatory, providing a record to be kept by the operator; it would also be handy as a source of information on the number of passengers on board. Three survivors of the river mishap turned up this week after the tally had been settled at 17. Could there be more? The manifest would have indicated the actual number missing or presumed dead in such a situation.

In an express boat it is possible to draw up a list of passengers on a particular trip. There is ample time to write down names during the three-hour ride from Sibu/Kapit/Sibu while fees are being collected. Relay the exact number of passengers to the town office. Thanks to the mobile phone, the information can be instantaneously received. Copy it to the marine department or Sarawak Rivers Board (SRB) for good measure.

For boats doing the Kangaroo runs, crossing from bank to bank, passenger manifests may not be practical, but for the express boats, it is a matter of management and complying with the regulations, if any. These boats do not pick passengers on the way like a bus does.

Every passenger must buy a ticket on which the seat is numbered according to the categories. In many such boats, there is even a compartment at the front of the boat, class for VIPs, with more comfortable seats, of course. The ordinary mortals are at the back.

In case of an accident, I don’t know what the protocol would be. YBs first out, followed by the Councillors, senior civil servants, Penghulus, Tuai Rumahs, then members of the Opposition? The ordinary people may have to watch, wait and worry as the boat slowly sinks.

The manifest is also useful for other sources of information. Passengers without Malaysian ICs are probably not Malaysians. At once you can tell they are foreigners, probably tourists. This practice may also help the immigration or marine department’s inspectors to discover an illegal migrant on board.

Training of skippers

From time to time boat captains and crew must undergo refresher courses. They would be glad to be away on shore for a couple of days. While on land they might as well have their health checked.

We are told that all skippers have undergone rigorous training in seamanship including practical lessons on the safety of the boat and passengers. Is prevention of overloading of boats before Gawai or Christmas holidays part of the training?

Speed a contributor to accident
As it is on the road, speed does contribute to boat accidents and so does overloading. Imposition on the speed limit for all motorised boats is necessary especially around the bends of the river to avoid mishaps and to minimise the impact of the wash on the riverbanks. Erosion on the banks of the Rajang is not a tourist attraction.

Floating markings like buoys to indicate hazards on the river are helpful in slowing down the boat thus minimising the impact on the riverbanks liable to erosion. Can we find good pilots with a sense of responsibility towards the environment?

Marine enquiry instituted

We shall wait for the findings from a number of investigations by a number of authorities and possibly learn some lessons from the tragedy. A marine enquiry open to the public would be normal in such a river tragedy.

New River Ordinance — are passengers covered by insurance?

From the statement to the media, the SRB is working on a new ordinance to regulate river traffic, liability of public carriers, etc. We hope that the board will make copies of the regulations available to foreign visitors, enclosed in the tourist brochures.

Passengers, especially tourists, would also like to know if they are insured as passengers on a public carrier. Paying passengers would like to know which authorities ensure that they are fully covered by insurance.

Green boats
Design a boat with windows big enough to pass through in the event of an accident. A double-decker vessel, if you must, but all the safety features must be in place, otherwise no boat is   licensed to carry paying passengers.

Nowadays being green is the norm, so why not design a boat with the environment in mind?

Yes, green boats — those that reduce speed to save riverbanks. The number     of boats should be reduced as more roads are being built.

Most existing boats have only two doors in front,    one at the back after the engine room and tiny windows, shut all the time, and difficult to open. Ironically, a ‘good’ thing about this is that it would be easier for the divers/rescuers to collect the bodies as they would all      be there in the steel enclosure.

The old cargo boats,      the Kangaroo boats, I        call them, picking up passengers as they proceed along the river are better designed and built as well as safer.

That’s purely my personal opinion.

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