Opinion

POLICYMAKING IN SMOKE-FILLED ROOMS: TIME TO CHALLENGE POLICE ROAD SAFETY CRONIES

Special interests have pushed Hong Kong’s road safety policy in a dangerous direction

Hong Kong’s Road Safety Council (RSC) has been forced to cancel its 47th anniversary ceremony-cum-carnival on pandemic fears.

Only a handful of event management consultants will weep for its absence.

In its heyday, the council was a lively community delivering real change: road deaths reached record lows, people took part in competitions and carnivals and there was a genuine optimism that “zero accidents on the road” was an appropriate vision.

But today RSC and its subcommittees (RSCC, RSRC, RSARWG, RSPSWG, RSFATGWG, RSITWG and RSSEWG, no kidding) face little public scrutiny or accountability. Meeting minutes take up to a year to appear, while RSC put out just two press releases in the last two years.

Talking with the council is like a near-death experience without the bright light, a demoralising snapshot of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous self-serving committees.

The latest topic discussed was cycle safety: cycle injuries are up 60%, and data shows it’s largely down to people lacking cycling skills (food delivery riders make up only 1% of injuries, while solo cyclists, with no third party involved, account for 60% of injuries).

And how does RSC tackle this issue?

“They couldn’t really think of any new ideas,” said a non-governmental member with knowledge of the proceedings.

Assembled officials plumped for something pretty, agreeing on “glow in the dark” bike bottles.

For whatever good such future landfill will do, here’s what RSC seems to miss: road safety doesn’t actually need trendy new ideas.

Oslo reduced its cycle and pedestrian deaths to zero through hard policy involving cutting car numbers and creating car-free zones

The Norwegian capital of Oslo reduced cycle and pedestrian deaths to zero not with luminous bike bottles but through hard change: reducing the number of cars by 30%, banning parking in the city centre and increasing the mode share of cycling to 25%, among other things such as speed bumps and car-free zones.

RSC members have little interest in promoting such difficult policy decisions because many of them serve special interests. The balance of membership is tilted heavily towards cars and insurance companies.

The Hong Kong Automobile Association and the Institute of Advanced Motorists have a fifth of the committee spots. Hong Kong Cycling Alliance can’t get a seat at the table. Public transport lobby groups don’t get a look in.

I raised this last year with the then-chief of traffic police, Chief Superintendent Martin Cadman, who responded that RSC was bringing in some “new blood”, Eviana Leung Bon-yuen, only the second woman in the non-government half of the panel.

But Leung is a member of five other government panels (none transport related), and a partner at law firm Howse Williams, acting for insurance companies in commercial disputes.

New blood? Just more of the same type. In a phone call this morning, Leung had no comment on the workings of the council and would not even confirm her RSC committee membership. “You can check the website,” she said, before hanging up.

Keeping insurance profits safe

Leung and her cronies are undoubtedly talented in their own spheres. But they aren’t the right people to be setting road safety policy.

During its last publicly recorded meeting RSC developed a plan for solving the widespread problem of injuries caused by passengers losing balance on buses – they installed screens across the front bus window to remind passengers to hold the handrail.

Such a campaign doesn’t make any sense… until you look at it through the lens of an insurance lawyer. Any injured party has a diminished claim if the bus company has warned them to hold the handrail. Case closed.

Hong Kong must do better. There were 20,105 reported deaths and injuries on the roads in 2019, up 3% on 2018 and weighing in at 55 casualties every day, a number so horrifyingly distant from RSC’s stated goal of “zero accidents” as to render its vision meaningless. The opaqueness of its meetings and membership adds little value to the road safety conversation.

If the government genuinely wishes to stop the carnage on the roads, it needs to refresh RSC membership, ridding the committee of special interests and perhaps opening to a wider cross-section of the community. At the very least, it needs to stop hiding behind government and police PR and shine a timely light on the secretive conversations taking place within its meetings.

Decision-making in smoke-filled rooms, even in mainland China, is so last year.

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