Accidents waiting to happen
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Accidents waiting to happen

BMA, agencies should do more to stop freak mishaps, experts warn

Danger zone: Manholes on a road divider near Lat Phrao Soi 49 are covered with concrete plates and fenced off to warn pedestrians not to enter the area. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)
Danger zone: Manholes on a road divider near Lat Phrao Soi 49 are covered with concrete plates and fenced off to warn pedestrians not to enter the area. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)

Bangkok residents were left horrified by two tragic accidents early this month that highlight a lack of safety measures on the part of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and other agencies.

On May 3, a 59-year-old man died after plunging into a poorly covered, 15-metre-deep manhole belonging to the Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA) on a road divider in Lat Phrao district.

The victim was crossing the road when he stepped onto the plywood cover, which was used to replace a steel manhole cover that had been stolen, resulting in his fall.

A few days later, a 29-year-old motorcyclist was killed after falling into a drainage system inside the Mahai Sawan underpass in Thon Buri district.

The motorcycle skidded inside the underpass, causing the rider to sprawl several metres before ending in the drainage opening. One section of the drainage system was left open after the lid was stolen and not replaced.

In light of these unfortunate incidents, the BMA called a meeting with various agencies to come up with measures to prevent the theft of manhole covers and boost public safety across the city.

The Bangkok Post spoke to safety advocates and planners to see how the city's public safety works, and what else needs to be done to make the capital's footpaths and streets safer for all.

Accountability needed

Dr Anuchar Sethasathien, chairman of the Thailand Consumers Council's (TCC) transport and vehicle sub-committee, attributed the persistence of such incidents to inadequate supervision and regulations.

He stressed the importance of having clear and robust public safety policies to ensure coordination among parties involved.

"It's crucial to start with clear policies. Examples from big cities show us that clear policies can be translated into coordinated work plans and effectively implemented," he said.

It is also a must to establish clear accountability measures, especially when a large-scale project is divided into smaller subcontracts, said Dr Anuchar. As different subcontractors may have varying levels of expertise, this practice poses risks such as inconsistent performance and safety issues.

However, in Switzerland, the public safety law imposes tough penalties if safety risks are detected in footpaths after work has been accepted, according to Dr Anuchar. In the event of a fatal accident, criminal penalties also apply.

Strict enforcement has ensured compliance from all concerned, he said, adding this type of law is in place in the countries where Smart City development has become successful.

In Thailand, the Office of the Ombudsman, which safeguards people's constitutional rights, should be roped into the efforts. Each project should have a timeline to help the public and state agencies keep track of work and be more vigilant and proactive in ensuring safety.

Civil society and the media can play a role in raising public awareness to help make a safer environment for pedestrians and motorists, he added.

According to Dr Anuchar, urban residents are exposed to safety risks all the time but these risks often go unnoticed until an incident happens.

Anuchar: Must have clear policies

Democrat Party deputy leader Suchatvee Suwansawat criticised the BMA for shifting the blame to other agencies over the May 3 tragedy, saying it should have made sure the missing manhole cover was addressed properly.

According to the BMA, the Wang Thong Lang district office notified the MEA to ensure the well was properly covered three weeks before the incident. Such a response sparked anger and criticism because it was seen as an attempt to avoid taking responsibility.

Mr Suchatvee said the BMA is fully responsible for overseeing the maintenance and management of the city's footpaths and it should not avoid dealing with the issue.

The former Bangkok governor candidate cited a lack of genuine accountability for a series of tragic accidents that have rocked the capital -- from fires, to the collapse of a crane at a construction site.

"It happens again and again because there are no consequences for those responsible. Nobody is held accountable. Our society doesn't really care about public safety," he said.

Safety advocacy body

An independent agency to investigate accidents, educate the public and give advice to the public and private sectors is needed, said Mr Suchatvee, a former president of the Council of Engineers.

He has gathered the signatures of 10,000 people to propose a bill calling for such an agency. His next step is to enlist support from parties so the bill is passed into law within the current government.

"Some state agencies may feel uncomfortable because they will be kept in check. It's time to make structural changes to the system," he said.

As for short-term measures, he said the BMA can mitigate risks by making regular inspections to identify potential hazards and enforcing regulations to ensure safety is addressed.

Suchatvee: BMA is 'fully responsible'

Supanat Minchaiynunt, a Move Forward Party (MFP) list-MP, said safety protocols are imposed in any construction project and state agencies must ensure they are followed.

However, a tragedy can happen due to varying factors, he said. In some cases, state officials may lack knowledge or expertise. In many, they simply neglect their responsibilities. At times contractors are not qualified, or do not invest in safety because it's a low-value project.

He suggested the government consider blacklisting or downgrading the tiers of contractors and take into consideration their safety records instead of their performance alone.

"A law on procurement needs to be reviewed. Weight should be given to other criteria such as deliverables and safety, not only price or performance. Those in the upper tiers can be downgraded if there are delays or safety issues," he said.

A public independent agency on safety will be unnecessary if state agencies do their job by assessing whether there are any violations of safety regulations and take the appropriate actions, said the MP.

The MFP has submitted to the House a motion to debate public safety and payment of compensation to ensure the victims are supported, according to Mr Supanat.

At present, compensation is a settlement between the victims and project contractors which may not always adequately address the needs of the victims or may put a heavy burden on the contractors, he said.

"Should we set up a fund where the contractors contribute 0.5% of the project value to guarantee compensation for victims before lawsuits are filed against the contractors?

"The details must be worked out because some low-value projects take place in the middle of the city while some high-value ones are in more remote areas," he said.

Supanat: Downgrade bad contractors

'Cooperation not enough'

Sitthiporn Somkitsan, deputy director-general of the Traffic and Transport Department under the BMA, said Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt has launched a project to upgrade the city's pavements to make them safer.

"Several agencies carry out work that affects the pavements and the governor is coordinating with them," he said.

Mr Sitthiporn said the laws are also being enforced against motorcyclists riding on the pavements and street vendors occupying the public space which pose risks to pedestrians.

Sitthiporn: BMA to upgrade pavements

Samart Ratchapolsitte, former deputy Bangkok governor, said accidents can be prevented if project owners take safety seriously. He warned there are over 600 manholes for laying underground cables that are not permanently closed.

"The project owners must be tough with the contractors and make regular inspections. If they don't, accidents are likely to happen," he said.

Waiwit Thongthongkham, an office worker, said he had to mind his every step when walking along the city's pavements because he was not sure when he might fall into a gaping hole.

He called on authorities to enforce regulations for pedestrian safety and impose tough penalties against contractors or agencies that fail to adhere to safety precautions.

"You can't ask for cooperation. Enforce the law," he said.

Samart: Owners must take safety seriously

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