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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bus drivers in the hot seat

Whenever a fatal bus accident occurs, the first to be made scapegoats are the drivers. But should they alone bear the blame?

IT is not easy being a bus driver. Not only is it a lowly-paid job, there are also many hazards associated with it. The worst of these is when an accident happens and lives are lost, the drivers are always the first to be vilified. This has been the case in most accidents including the latest where 10 people died. In the accident on Saturday last week, the driver of the double-decker Sani Express admitted that he dozed off at the wheel causing the vehicle to skid and crash into the divider of the North-South Expressway 5km from the Jelapang toll plaza.

It was reported that the driver, Mohd Kamil Mohd Rashid, 38, had planned to let his co-driver take over at the next stop in Sungai Perak but dozed off less than an hour after the bus left the Tapah rest area.

This incident only places more pressure on the drivers, and all of those whom this writer has talked to have the same thing to say: no one wants to be involved in an accident.

One driver says that since the latest accident, passengers have been coming up to him and telling him: “Bawa elok-elok, ya (please drive carefully).”

In the drivers’ defence: Following the bad press on bus drivers lately, Tajudin has prepared a statement defending bus drivers. He plans to distribute the statement to each of his passengers soon.

Tajudin Rajaai, 45, who plies the KL-Ipoh route daily, has even written down a statement that he plans to distribute to passengers soon. In essence, the statement says that no one wants to be involved in an accident, but that it could happen at any time.

It goes on to say that the drivers are ridiculed if they are slow but are considered reckless if they go too fast.

“Some passengers haven’t even stepped on the bus and they ask us the time we will reach the destination,” he says.

Syed Mohd Amin, 40, agrees with Tajudin, saying such questions place stress on them.

“They know how long it takes but yet they ask. That simple question can raise our pressure,” says Syed who plies the Kuala Lumpur- Johor Baru route.

So when an accident involving a bus happens, Tajudin understands what is going on in the driver’s mind.

“We sympathise with the drivers even though we don’t know them,” says Tajudin.

In his 25 years of driving, Tajudin has been involved in one accident. Last August, he scrapped the highway divider while trying to avoid a lorry that swerved into his path. There was minor damage to the bus and he was fined RM300 because he was found to be at fault.

Another driver, Baharom*, 40, who plies the Kuala Lumpur-Sungai Petani (Kedah) route, says drivers do feel responsible for the life of every passenger.

“Even if there is a cat on the road we swerve to avoid it, so what more when it comes to human lives,” he says.

He reasons that the cause of accidents is basically “the will of God”, but adds that while accidents can be caused by human error, there are factors such as road conditions, weather and third parties to be taken into account.

“Accidents happen in the blink of an eye and they don’t recognise your colour, age or experience. But that doesn’t mean we drive recklessly,” he says.

Baharom adds that the PLUS highway heading north from Rawang is not in the best condition and many accidents have occurred there. Despite that the authorities have not done anything, he says. “They will close the left lane and then the right lane. They will do up the road but a few months after that they are digging again.”

Not a lucrative career

Kamarulzaman Ahmad*, 38, who has been working as a driver for seven years, plies the Kuala Lumpur-Kuala Kangsar route daily. He makes the return trip and then drives back to Kuala Kangsar.

His company is flexible and gives the drivers a choice on their working days. He has the option of working for four days and taking the next four off, or working for six days and taking the next six off. He rotates his work and days off with another driver. On average, he works 15 days a month and earns around RM1,500 monthly. On his days off, he works as a grass cutter to earn extra income.

Like the others, he feels they are always the first to be placed on the chopping block.

“I feel sad when accidents happen. I also feel it. The first people to be blamed are the drivers. It’s never the road conditions or the company. But we take responsibility for the passengers,” he says.

Syed, meanwhile, can make an average of RM2,500 monthly for 21 days’ work. He says the company does not pay the drivers EPF or Socso benefits as they are all contracted staff. The drivers have tried to fight for employees’ benefits but the company has simply turned them down, he claims.

To earn that amount, he has to make a round trip and then go back to Kuala Lumpur or vice versa. And that is almost 16 hours in the bus, not including the sleeping time at night, which is also in the bus.

Baharom makes only RM60 per return trip on the KL-Sungai Petani route daily. For that one bus, there are three drivers. At any one time, there must be at least two drivers on board. With a fixed monthly salary of RM300, Baharom takes back between RM1,200 and RM1,500 a month.

“When we ask for a raise, the company says they cannot afford it,” he says.

Drivers are also prone to collecting summonses whether for speeding or overtaking on a hill. They have to pay the summons on their own although the companies usually front the money, says Baharom.

Attempting to explain why they get fined for overtaking, Baharom says there are times when they are trailing lorries moving at only 10kph up a hill.

“It is not safe and we are carrying passengers. We have no choice but to overtake. If we keep behind the lorry, the passengers will start grumbling.”

But Beniaman Nordin, 53, who has been driving for 29 years, accepts everything about his job including the hazards and the pay.

He earns about RM2,000 for an average of 23 days making the round between Kluang and Kuala Lumpur.

“What else can I do? I didn’t study at a very high level and I am only qualified to do this,” he says.

Farhan Zainal* has just returned from the Road Transport Department (RTD) to explain why his bus had arrived late at the station by 20 minutes.

“A passenger lodged a complaint,” he says. “If you are fast, then you’re good. If you’re slow, they say the bus is like a kereta lembu (bullock cart).”

He says many drivers are hardly at home and miss their families very much. “Our house is like a hotel. We are only there one day in two weeks. We go out to feed our families. When we step out of the house, we are not sure when we are going to get back.”

For many of the drivers, their bus doubles up as their sleeping place especially when they are out of town. Syed who is from Kluang can only join his family during his days off. If he is in Johor Baru, he finds a place in the depot to grab a nap. When he is in Kuala Lumpur, he tries to find a place to park his bus and get some rest.

“I have woken up to parking summonses before,” laments Syed, who states it is almost impossible to get proper rest while travelling on the bus.

Baharom says that drivers are on the road all the time, and while they are reuniting people with their loved ones during the festive seasons, they themselves are on the road away from their families.

“I’m not sure if anyone ap­­pre­ciates our contributions,” he says.

Farhan believes that most drivers would rather not drive in the early hours of the morning.

“That would be better for us. None of us want to be up driving at night. Only musang (foxes) are up at night,” he says.

Most of the bus drivers claim to be humiliated and treated like fugitives especially during the festive seasons when the authorities are especially vigilant . Their common grouse is that the National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK) follows them about, even into the toilet, as if they are criminals.

Baharom remembers two years ago when he was plying the KL-Penang route, just after the Bukit Gantang bus crash. He had to submit samples of his urine four times in the same day.

The way he describes it is almost funny, but it is very serious for them.

“We are carrying our urine samples around and passengers must be wondering what is happening. Sometimes we are scared to urinate in case there is not enough for the tests,” he says.

Checks should be made on passengers as well, he states.

He also says that drivers are treated as if they already have one leg in the lock-up.

“One perceived mistake and you’re in there,” he says.

Farhan also slams the views of the so-called “experts” and lecturers on how best to avoid accidents.

“They are in the office so what do they actually know about driving buses? Discussions about the issue should also involve opinions of drivers.”

*Names have been changed

Story and picture By RASHVINJEET S.BEDI

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Harap dapat tinggalkan nama anda apabila membuat komen yer..Tak kisah la nama betul ke samaran....TQ

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