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Published: 00:52, November 23, 2021 | Updated: 09:56, November 23, 2021
Hong Kong's road safety record is much better than it seems
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:00:52, November 23, 2021 Updated:09:56, November 23, 2021 By Ho Lok-sang

Some shocking traffic accidents happened recently in Hong Kong. The public impression is that Hong Kong has a poor road safety record. That led me to search for statistics so I can do some international comparisons. It turns out that Hong Kong’s fatality rate per 100,000 population due to road accidents is probably the lowest in the world. 

A “List of countries by traffic-related death rate” on Wikipedia shows that Hong Kong’s traffic-related death rate was an incredible 1.5 per 100,000 population in 2019. This compares with Singapore’s 3.6 (2013), Canada’s 5.8 (2016), Japan’s 4.1 (2016), the Chinese mainland’s 18.8 (2016), the United States’ 12.4 (2018), and the United Kingdom’s 2.9 (2019). An official “Data file — Road Traffic Accidents and Casualties (1953-2020)” published by the Transport Department shows that the figure 1.5 is correct! 

I traced the death rate over the years, and discovered that the figures were much higher prior to 1979. The death rate was rising prior to 1979, from 8.8 per 100,000 in 1974 to 9.7 per 100,000 in 1979. Since then, however, the death rate began to trend down, though with occasional hiccups. In 2003, the rate jumped from 2.55 to 3.0, and that was related to a serious bus accident that occurred on the morning of July 10. On that fateful day, a Kowloon Motor Bus double-decker bus plunged off a bridge near the Ting Kau section of Tuen Mun Road in Tsuen Wan, killing 21 people and injuring 20. In 2018, the rate jumped from 1.48 to 1.83. Sadly, another KMB double-decker bus flipped onto its side on Tai Po Road in Tai Po on Feb 10, leaving 19 people dead and 65 injured.

It turns out that 1979 was the year when Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway began operation. As the MTR network grows, more and more people travel on the MTR system, and injuries on the road have plunged. There is, to me, little doubt that the MTR has given Hong Kong people a bonus in terms of fewer injuries and deaths on the road, apart from improved reliability and time savings.

Notwithstanding Hong Kong’s good road safety record in terms of deaths and injuries per 100,000 population, however, many accidents are avoidable. Each avoidable accident that occurred leading to deaths and injuries is a tragedy. In the 2018 Tai Po Road accident, the driver was a part-timer and had been convicted of careless driving before, but the bus company deemed that he was fit for driving and even had claimed that he had a good safety record. 

Just a few days ago, a 57-year-old retired police sergeant who worked as taxi driver was killed in a head-on collision with a seven-seater driven by a 21-year-old probationary driving license holder who subsequently failed an alcohol breath test. The alcohol level was twice the limit of 22 micrograms per 100 milliliters. The drunken driver not only killed the retiree, but also hurt himself and his companion. It is sad that today some Hong Kong people are still recklessly endangering other people’s lives with drunken driving.  

Recently, there was an uproar among taxi owners and drivers when a leading insurer refused to take new business to cover taxis. Early in the summer, taxi companies were already complaining about increasingly high premiums on their taxis. Records show that from 2018 through the first half of 2020, the insurance company had to pay claims in excess of the premiums collected excluding administrative costs. This reflects a high probability of claims that result either from very high accident rates or fraud. The executive director of the company even says the company is mulling over not renewing existing clients because of the high losses. Data from the Insurance Authority showed that the taxi insurance segment recorded total underwriting losses of HK$323 million ($41.45 million) for 10 of the 15 years leading up to 2019.  

According to Insurance Business Asia, reporting on the taxi insurance business in Hong Kong, “The number of accidents (involving taxis) was on the rise, with 3,916 in 2018 and 4,198 in 2019. Accidents were fewer at 3,408 in 2020, due to the movement restrictions and loss of tourism during the COVID-19 outbreak. Most of the contributing factors to accidents were driver-related, such as tailgating, losing control of the vehicle, and distracted driving.” Some taxi firm owners blamed rampant insurance fraud, such as staged accidents and exaggerated claims, for the insurers’ losses. 

Although the number of traffic accidents in Hong Kong did rise slightly from 15,935 in 2018 to 16,102 in 2019, the rate of increase was 1 percent. The rate of increase for accidents involving taxis as reported above, however, was over 7 percent. This suggests that accidents involving taxis have increased disproportionately. Actually, the rate of accidents per 1,000 vehicles declined from 20.5 to 20.4. Because there has been no increase in the number of taxis in these years, the accident rate for taxis must have jumped. There is a need for the authorities to look into this strange phenomenon. Taxis are the fourth-most commonly used public transport in Hong Kong, with 966,400 daily passenger journeys on average in 2015. Safeguarding the safety of taxis, and of course that of buses too, should be a priority for the government.

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.  

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