SINGAPORE: A few years ago, migrant worker Lee (not his real name) and his colleagues traveled to work in the back of a truck that ran over bumps in a parking lot.
There were also metal objects on the aft deck and the driver’s carelessness was enough to injure Lee and a colleague.
A scan at the hospital showed a muscle tear at Lee’s waist. “It has been very tough. I can’t bend over and lift things in one movement,’ he said.
He asked for anonymity for fear that his work permit would be revoked because he was speaking, adding: “Sitting in the back (of a truck) is quite a dangerous thing to do.”
He has worked in Singapore for 14 years and although he and his colleagues often talk about their mode of transport, he finds it “pointless” because their boss is already “well aware” of the risks.
“The metal bars are not secured; they are not attached to the truck. They would fly (on impact),” Lee said.
Transferring workers in trucks is back in the spotlight after recent accidents.
In April, there were two reported accidents involving trucks carrying workers. One of the accidents, which took place on the Pan Island Expressway, killed two people: Indian worker Sugunan Sudheeshmon and Bangladeshi Toffazal Hossain.
READ: Calls to review the practice of transporting workers in trucks after 2 accidents
READ: PIE truck accident: Second worker dies in hospital
In May there was another accident involving a police van and a truck carrying 11 workers.
On July 19, a Change.org petition to transport workers in vans or buses garnered more than 22,000 signatures. So why does the practice persist despite safety concerns? Can injuries and deaths from truck accidents be prevented?
In an episode of Talking Point investigating the matter, a few Singaporeans got the chance to ride on the back of a truck.
They came to the same realization after finding it hard to hold on as the truck made its way around a go-kart track at 30 miles per hour.
One of them, Dennis Chan, said: “At first I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun.’ But when we were swinging in the middle of the track…I felt like I was going to fall off.”
“I thought it would be pretty cool, but after that I don’t think I’ll do it again,” said Christabelle Sng, another contestant.
“There’s nothing really out of place, and if there’s a sudden jerk, there’s a good chance you’ll fly away.”
When asked if he agreed to take a truck to and from work every day, a third participant, Dominic Ng, replied, “No. I have a wife, I have a son; it’s not worth the risk.”
Safety expert Natarajan Krishnamurthy said a truck is more dangerous than a bus or van because it is structurally “much weaker”. It is also more visible – for lack of restrictions people are thrown around.
Passengers can hold onto a handgrip under normal traffic conditions, “but if an accident occurs, the force on the hand becomes too great and the handle is broken,” he said.
NOT ALLOWED EXCEPT FOR EMPLOYEES
Still, trucking workers continues to exist because other options are more expensive.
Under the Road Traffic Act, trucks may not be used for passengers, with the exception of employees who carry out the business of the owner or lessee of the vehicles.
Trucks can also transport sick or injured people in an emergency.
Senior Minister of State (Transport) Amy Khor said in parliament in May that there are “very important practical and operational issues – beyond just cost considerations – and that is probably why it is not uncommon internationally”.
READ: Department of Transport assesses safety measures for trucks carrying workers: Amy Khor
With the construction industry “severely affected” by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said further regulations are likely to affect the completion of several construction projects and “will mean the downfall of some businesses and the loss of workers’ livelihoods” .
Low-wage migrant workers in sectors such as construction make up the bulk of Singapore’s truck passengers. And companies buy trucks because they can be used in multiple ways, says PQ Builders director Peh Ke Pin.
“If I buy a van, the van would only transport the workers in the morning and at night. But (for) the rest of the day I can’t use it (to carry material),’ he said.
“But (trucks are) always moving materials because we have multiple locations, so the cost per use is much lower than a van and a bus.”
While the industry may be moving “towards” transporting workers in buses and vans in the future, he said using trucks “is still the most cost-efficient and practical way to date”.
Practices differ in different countries when it comes to transporting workers. In cities such as London and Hong Kong it is prohibited to sit on the back of trucks. Bahrain, with a sizeable migrant population like Singapore, also banned the practice in 2009.
But countries like Canada, Thailand and the United States allow passengers to be carried on the back decks of trucks traveling on the road, albeit with security measures and some restrictions, Khor was quoted as saying in parliament.
Singapore tightened up some safety rules in 2009 and 2010. For example, the maximum passenger capacity must be clearly displayed and the front seats must be occupied before people can sit in the back of the trucks.
Passengers, seated, must not be higher than 1.1 meters from the deck of the vehicle. They must have a minimum seating area of four square feet.
INFLATABLE VESTS AN OPTION?
With the help of creative technologist Akbar Yunus of the design firm Yunora, Talking Point explored some prototypes intended to make trucks safer for rear passengers.
These ideas were presented to MP Alex Yam and associate professor Yap Fook Fah, co-director of the Transport Research Center at Nanyang Technological University.
The ideas include: seats with a lap belt; folding seats with a lap belt and a handle; and seats with a three-point seat belt.
Each had its limitations and security risks. Yam, who has raised the issue of truck crashes in Parliament, pointed out, for example, that the option with handles meant additional impact points and possible injury in the event of a crash.
WATCH: Transporting our migrant workers: could it be safer? (23:19)
And while the three-point seat belt is effective at preventing injuries in cars, it only applies to forward-facing seats, Yap said.
“They have not been shown to be effective in side-facing seats in frontal impacts, and there is possible (pre)injury to the neck (from) sideways movement,” he said.
Seat belts must also be securely anchored to withstand the force of a collision. “For an average adult involved in a collision (at) 60 km/h, the kind of force (needed) to stop the passenger is about two tons, or 30 Gs,” Yap said.
One option to explore could be hard hats or even inflatable vests, like some motorcyclists wear, he suggested.
Yam noted that some companies transport their employees by bus, and this “didn’t increase their costs that much”. This is especially true when small businesses work together and share resources when transporting employees to the same location or dormitory.
“That’s a direction we can go,” he said.
Khor noted in May that the number of people aboard trucks injured or killed in road accidents has been on a declining trend over the past decade.
READ: Fewer deaths in truck crashes since safety measures in 2009: LTA
In 2019, the injury rate was about 8.1 people per 1,000 trucks, lower than the 8.4 injuries per 1,000 motor vehicles overall.
In terms of deaths, an average of nine people aboard trucks died in road accidents between 2011 and 2015. From 2016 to last year, this dropped to 2.6 per year.
The government will “continue to review safety rules” and engage stakeholders “to see how these measures can be improved,” Khor said.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. The program is broadcast every Thursday at 9.30pm on Channel 5.