Road fatalities in Malaysia: Are our roads becoming safer or more dangerous?

The Member of Parliament (MP) of Kluang recently wrote about the rising number of road fatalities in Malaysia. His article cited the 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report that purportedly showed that Malaysia “has the highest deaths on the road compared to any other nation in the world”. Malaysia’s road fatalities currently stand at 25 deaths per 100,000 population, a value which is higher than India (19.9), Russia (18.6), and China (20.5). But Malaysia’s figure actually puts the country not in the first position, as the Kluang MP asserted, but at 22nd out of 185 countries for having the most dangerous roads in the world.

Road fatalities such as this one is unfortunately becoming increasingly common in Malaysia (photo from cbt.com.my).

Are road fatalities such as this becoming increasingly common in Malaysia (photo from cbt.com.my)?

Now comes the more interesting part: if we use the same data from the 2013 WHO report to calculate the number of road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles, we get a contrasting picture on Malaysia’s road safety level: Malaysia has 31.4 road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles. At this value, Malaysia now ranks 129 out of 185 countries for having the world’s most dangerous roads!

Malaysia's road deaths per 100,000 population is among the highest in the world, but it is also among the lowest in the world if the road deaths are expressed as number of deaths per 100,000 vehicles.

Malaysia’s road deaths per 100,000 population is among the highest in the world, but it is also among the lowest in the world if the road deaths are expressed on per 100,000 vehicles basis. What’s going on?

In other words, using one type of road safety measure, Malaysia ranks near the top for having the world’s most dangerous roads, but by using another measure, Malaysia now tumbles down the ranks. So, what’s going on here?

Malaysia's road deaths are actually declining annually but still remains high if compared to highly developed nations.

Malaysia’s number of road deaths are actually declining sharply annually but still remains high if compared to highly developed nations.

Unbeknownst to the Kluang MP (and probably to most Malaysians) is that the road safety level of a country can be expressed or measured in several ways, two of which are to calculate either the number of road deaths per 100,000 population or the number of road deaths per 100,000 (or sometimes 10,000) vehicles. But none of these two indexes are satisfactorily adequate or comprehensive because they do not fully capture all factors involved in road safety such as risk of exposure.

Take Australia and Tonga, for instance. Australia has 5 road deaths per 100,000 population, which is nearly the same as Tonga’s 6. However, when expressed as the number of road deaths per 100,000 vehicles, Tonga has 103 whereas Australia 7. Such contradictions occur because road safety indexes, as mentioned earlier, do not fully encompass all factors of road safety, one of which is exposure to accidents.

Consequently, the use of single indexes to compare the road safety between countries can be misleading. Comparisons between countries is only valid if the countries being compared have similar levels of motorization (number of vehicles per population), transport system, population densities, and socio-economic factors.

There are many factors to road safety, but they can be grouped into three dimensions: exposure, risk, and consequences. Simply put, a country’s road safety level is related to how exposed people are to accidents during their travels on the roads and how likely of them surviving these accidents should they occur.

The farther we travel, for instance, the higher the probability we would encounter an accident. Consequently, many researchers suggest that a more useful measure of road safety is to calculate the number of road deaths per vehicle-kilometer traveled in a year. This index is calculated by dividing the number of road deaths by the total distance traveled by all motor vehicles in the country in a year.

Unfortunately, many countries do not collect such data. However, those that do include Malaysia and 22 other countries (such as US, UK, Denmark, Australia, and Germany), and their data are kept in the International Road Traffic and Accident Database (IRTAD) under the OECD Road Transport Research Programme.

Of the 23 member countries in the IFTAD, Malaysia's road safety is the third from bottom, only higher than Korea's and the Czech Republic's. Unfortunately, data are not available for many countries, making wider comparisons difficult (photo from ).

Of the 23 member countries in the IRTAD, Malaysia’s road safety is the third from bottom, only higher than Korea’s and the Czech Republic’s. Unfortunately, data are not available for many other countries, making wider comparisons with Malaysia difficult (IRTAD, 2014).

Malaysia’s road safety level, as expressed by the number of road deaths per billion vehicle-kilometer, shows a declining trend from 33.6 in 1997, 26.3 in 2000, and 13.4 in 2012. However, Malaysia’s road deaths still remain high in comparison to other countries. Most of the 23 countries in the IRTAD have less than 10 road deaths per billion vehicle-kilometer in 2012. Only three countries: South Korea (18.4), Czech Republic (15.7), and Malaysia (13.4) have more than 10 road deaths.

A more accurate measure of road safety is to express the number of road fatalities on per total distance travelled by all vehicles in the country per year.

A more accurate measure of road safety is to express the number of road fatalities on per total distance traveled by all vehicles in the country per year. In this case, Malaysia’s road safety improves steadily every year since 1997.

More complicated and comprehensive measures of road safety exist. Several researchers have attempted to encompass the three dimensions of road safety (exposure, risk, and consequences) into a single representative measure.

In 2005, Al Haji from the Linköping University, Sweden measured the road safety levels of ten ASEAN countries from 1994 to 2003 and found that the road safety levels among these countries differed widely from one another. Malaysia in particular was ranked third for having the safest roads among the ASEAN countries, but ranked far ahead of us at the first and second positions were Singapore and Brunei, respectively. Al Haji also found that Singapore and Brunei also had similar road safety level with Sweden’s, a highly developed nation. In contrast, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were determined to have the least safe roads among the ASEAN countries.

No doubt the number of road deaths or fatalities in Malaysia is rising every year. In 2012, there were 6,917 road fatalities, compared to 6,035 in 2000. But this increase is partly due to the country’s rise in population and the number of vehicles on our roads. Since 2000, Malaysia’s population increases by an average of 2% per year to 29.3 million people and the number of vehicles by 6.6% per year to 22.7 million registered vehicles. Rapid motorization in this country meant that in 2012, there were 1.3 persons to a vehicle, compared to 2.2 in 2000, 3.9 in 1990, 5.7 in 1980, and 10.8 in 1974.

Malaysia's total annual road deaths increases every year. In 2012, the number of fatalities is 6,917.

Malaysia’s total number of road deaths increases every year. In 2012, the number of fatalities was 6,917.

Malaysia's rising population and rapid motorization means increasingly more people are owning motorized vehicles (such as cars and motorbikes). With their rise, the number of road fatalities would increase in tandem.

Malaysia’s population, number of registered vehicles, and motorization.

Malaysia’s road safety trends actually follow those typically observed when a country experiences greater economic development and social wealth, leading to increasing urbanization and ownership of vehicles. Malaysia’s road safety levels have actually been improving over the years — but not quickly enough. Malaysia’s road safety level is still far below those of many highly developed countries which have less than 10 deaths per 100,000 vehicles. If Malaysia is to achieve this target of 10 or lower deaths per 100,000 vehicles, we Malaysians have to be ready to make some personal sacrifices. So, it isn’t just what the government should do but also what we should do if we want to see our roads safer.

As a country develops, the number of road fatalities would decline due to rise in motorization (Al Haji, 2005).

As a country develops economically, it is usual to see a decline in the number of road fatalities on per vehicle or per vehicle-kilometer basis (Al Haji, 2005).

Social awareness and political will drive improvements in road safety which would otherwise decline every year. Likewise, Malaysia's road fatalities (per 100,000 population) showed annual increases until about 1996, after which Malaysia's road fatalities have started to decline since then (Al Haji, 2005).

Greater social awareness, improvements in engineering and road safety technologies, and national policies can drive improvements in road safety. Likewise, Malaysia’s road fatalities (per 100,000 population) showed annual increases until 1996, after which Malaysia’s road fatalities have declined annually (Al Haji, 2005).

One way to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads is to expand the public transport coverage in the country and encourage more use of public transport in the people’s daily commute. But are Malaysians willing to give up their cars and motorbikes – or at least, greatly reduce their use? This is easier said than done.

Local researchers Na’asah and associates in 2013 carried out a survey on 384 car owners from several Shah Alam neighborhoods. They reported that more that half of these Shah Alam residents see owning cars as something that provides convenience, reliability, freedom, and security . More than half of these respondents also see owning cars as a status and masculinity symbol. Admittedly, the results of this research are limited only to those staying in the Shah Alam area, but I believe the sentiments expressed by these Shah Alam residents would not differ much if this research was to be expanded to include more areas in Malaysia.

Consequently, the much-touted solution of increased use of public transport is not the panacea to increasing Malaysia’s road safety levels. Moreover, as Malaysia aims (and is on target) to be a high income country by 2020, we can only expect greater ownership of cars due to increased wealth and awareness of social status among Malaysians.

Increase coverage and use of public transport can reduce the number of road fatalities. Just don't expect public transport to be the only solutions to increasing road safety levels. We Malaysians have a strong love affair with our cars (photo from weiliklee.blogspot.com).

Increase coverage and use of public transport can reduce the number of road fatalities. Just don’t expect Malaysians to willingly embrace public transport — Malaysians have a love affair with their cars (photo from weiliklee.blogspot.com).

In 2012, 60% of road fatalities in Malaysia involve motorbikes. The popularity of motorbike ownership in Malaysia are due to the low cost of owning a motorbike here and that motorbikes here can be used all year round, unlike other countries that have cold seasons that would make the use of fully exposed motorbikes uncomfortable. So, trying to reduce motorbike ownership and use in Malaysia would be a challenging and polarized issue.

One effective solution to increase road safety is much greater road traffic enforcement such as increasing the use of Automated Enforcement System (AES). Unfortunately, the introduction of AES in Malaysia has been greatly delayed and remains controversial. Some Malaysians see these AES as money-making machines for the government which would ultimately increase the burden of the people. This is a baseless and cynical viewpoint especially when research by MIROS showed that since the introduction of AES in 14 areas in the country, people’s compliance with speed limits and red light stops have increased to 90% and 98%, respectively.

Automated Enforcement System (AES) seen here is a speed camera placed at several locations along hihways to reduce speeding (photo from aesdtector.blogspot.com).

Automated Enforcement System (AES) seen here is a speed camera placed at several locations along highways to discourage speeding (photo from aesdtector.blogspot.com).

Malaysians want safer roads, yes, but I suspect not many are willing to give up their personal comforts to achieve safer roads. Safer roads in Malaysia mean lower private vehicle ownership and use, greater use of public transport, more extensive and stricter subjection to road traffic enforcement, and higher costs of owning private vehicles (more expensive road toll rates, more establishment of road tolls, higher fuel prices, and higher car prices). These solutions may be unpopular, but they are necessary if we wish to see safer roads. Malaysians cannot simply expect cheaper cars, lower fuel prices, no road tolls, no more new highways to be built, and no AES, but yet still expect our roads to be safer than before.

Malaysians want increases in road safety but are unwilling to subject themselves to stricter and wider road safety enforcements. Seen here is AES camera vandalized by red spray paint (photo from aesdtector.blogspot.com).

Malaysians say they want more road safety but yet are unwilling to subject themselves to stricter and wider road safety enforcement. Seen here is AES cameras vandalized with red paint (photo from aesdetector.blogspot.com).

Safer roads in Malaysia? Of course we want them. But are we willing to pay the price?

Sources

  • Al Haji, G. 2005. Towards a Road Safety Development Index (RSDI). Development of an International Index to Measure Road Safety Performance. Linköping University, Norrköping, Sweden.
  • Hawa, M.J., Akmalia, S., Sharifah, A.S.S.M.R. 2014. The Effectiveness of Automated Enforcement System in Reducing Red Light Running Violations in Malaysia. Pilot Locations. Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (MIROS), Kajang, Selangor.
  • IRTAD. 2014. Road Safety Annual Report 2014. OECD/ITF. Paris, France.
  • Na’asah, N., Abd Rahim, M.N., Harifar, M.N. Yusfida, A.A. 2013. Urban residents’ awareness and readiness for sustainable transportation case study: Shah Alam, Malaysia. Asia Pacific International Conference on Environment-Behaviour Studies University of Westminster, London, UK, 4-6 September 2013 “From Research to Practice”.
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Comments

  1. I have to disagree with the speed issue. Europeans, especially Germans, drive much faster than Malaysians. The main problem, as I see it, is the randomness of Malaysian drivers and traffic, and the aggressive drivers.

    You can be overtaken from all sides, which is confusing and stressful. People don’t observe what is going on around them, so you may be overtaking someone, and suddenly someone pulls out in front of you because he didn’t notice that someone was going to overtake him. Or because he wants to punish someone driving above the speed limit, who knows. People decorate their windows, especially the rear window, with lots of junk that blocks the view. Windows are tinted so dark that the driver behind can’t see what’s going on in front of him.

    Keeping a safe distance is made almost impossible, because if you do so someone else will cut into your lane, will overtake you on the left, etc., and the safe distance is gone. You are basically forced to tailgate so that others can’t squeeze in just to be a second faster at their destination.

    And of course all the motorbikes with extremely aggressive drivers that squeeze through everything, races between cars in a traffic jam, and who don’t wear proper protective clothing.

    In contrast, if you are driving in, say, Germany, people will only overtake on the faster lane, and if they are not overtaking, regardless of the speed, they will drive on the slow lane. They look in the rear mirrors all the time and are aware of their surroundings. If you drive behind a car, you can usually see through the windows, and know what happens 2-3 cars ahead. Someone hits the brakes, you know it and brake much earlier than you could in Malaysia.

    German bikers are usually wearing a complete protective suit, and drive with much more respect. Then again, for them it is usually an expensive hobby, with powerful and expensive bikes. In Malaysia it’s the cheapest way of getting around without having to walk.

    And finally… the cars. As long as customers put more value on leather seats, alloy rims and body kits than on stability control and airbags, that is exactly what car makers will offer. I don’t know which fool is running Proton… why are they putting such an emphasis on safety? It does not make sense from a business perspective. There is a reason why Toyota and Perodua are so successful, only slow selling/unpopular cars have good safety in Malaysia. It is not legislation that is needed, it is customers that vote with their money. Oh and of course, the condition of cars. Some are in a really bad shape, or the tyres are completely worn (can see the white bits and pieces inside already). People buy second hand tyres, and put a different one in each corner, which is also very dangerous.

  2. What causes high road fatalities in Malaysia?

    Malaysia has world-class roads but few world-class drivers. Why?

    1. Prevalence of discourteous, impatient and Ignorant drivers with bad attitudes and driving habits demanding their rights on the road without learning to avoid accidents,
    2. Poor road signs, dangerous deceptive traffic lights,
    3. Overloaded vehicles during peak traffic periods,
    4. Tired drivers all contribute to high road fatalities.

    1. Unfortunately, whole generations of drivers have emerged with “emergency-brakes driving habits” preforming dangerous ‘Q’ jumping without signals causing obstructions and delays on the road. No drivers liked to be told that they are doing the wrong thing. Worst of all they can afford tobuy themselves out of trouble when caught or refused to pay fines. Training driving instructors, testers and new young drivers to be courteous drivers followed by full understanding of traffic regulations should be the first step that may help to resolve the problems. Incorrigible trainers produce recalcitrant trainees.

    2. Poorly placed or badly designed road signs that seem to jump out without adequate warning cause emergency braking and fatal consequences. Traffic lights installed in towns connected by the old trunk roads create traffic jams by pooling traffic into tight bundles of vehicles followed by several short distance stops. This cause acute frustrations to drivers to induce them to use PLUS roads instead. Money making ideas like these are killing many people during ‘balik kampong’ festive occasions. Removing some of these lights will reduce road fatalities. Many of these lights display a red light to stop right turning vehicles together with a small green forward arrow. When visibility is poor in smog conditions and at night they are very dangerous. This should be reversed.

    3. Overloaded vehicles and large families travelling in small cars are often subjected to tragic consequences. Perhaps proper enforcement may reduce accidents.

    4. R+R stations should also be built along trunk roads to provide rest for tired drivers. Not all people can afford to pay PLUS. These R+R stations could be built by private enterprise.

    Happy driving. Hope you have a good day and live through with fewer traffic jams.

  3. excellent article!

    i think poor driving skills and lack of driving etiquette are also contributing to traffic incidents. Aggressive and inconsiderate drivers should learn some driving manners.

    i have met a lot of malaysians who bribed the driving test examiner to pass and get their license. This is a very important issue to look into by the authority.

  4. Hi, Christopher!
    I’m a Europian women who lives here, and we think here in Malaysia has the most dangeres road 🙁 Lot of people has a big, expensive and shine car, but usualy they not has knowledge. They do not use the safetybelt, do not use children safety seat (or use it on front seat!!!). I wondering when the whole family traveling on one bike! No speed limit… Morale of transport is low.
    Thank you so much! It contains a lot of useful statistical data.
    I hope one day this will change.
    Best regards,
    Cecilia

    • Yes, do be careful out there. Malaysia has lots of bikes because they are much more affordable and our climate makes it easy to use bikes all year round. Malaysians also have poor driving skills. A recent local study found that Malaysian drivers have slower reflexes than UK drivers. Malaysians unfortunately talk a lot about safer roads but they ironically don’t want stricter enforcement such as speed traps.

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