Speech on Building a Safe City

Is Hog Kong still a safe city?

On 1st October 2012, a group of Hong Kong Electric staff were on a boat with their families to watch fireworks. But their boat crashed into a ferry off Lamma Island, then sank, causing 39 deaths and 101 injuries.

On the midnight of 30th November 2011, a row of stalls on Mong Kok’s Fa Yuen Street started burning. It spread to a nearby tenement building with lots of partitioned flats. At that time, most of the dwellers were asleep. This resulted in nine deaths and 34 injuries.

On 1st May 2008, a tour bus carrying over 60 passengers lost control on New Hiram’s Highway. It crashed into the roundabout and rolled over, killing 19 people and injuring 43.

The cases mentioned are serious accidents happened in recent years. Every one of them is startling. The dead and injured were mostly asleep or resting, or ebulliently preparing for an outdoor activity. Who knew they would get injured or even lose their lives in these accidents? Every year, China Institute of City Competitiveness does many surveys on competitiveness. Hong Kong has many times been rated as the safest Chinese city. However, in its reports of 2011 and 2012, the Institute has excluded Hong Kong from the safe city list because of the Fa Yuen Street fire and Lamma Island boat crashing incident.

At the beginning when I mentioned those extremely serious accidents, everybody knows of them. As for some common accidents, even if deaths or injuries are involved, the society might have neglected them. For example, cycling is becoming more and more popular, and subsequently cycling accidents are increasing. There were over 2100 cycling accidents in the first ten months of last year, 13% more than the year before, in which there were nine deaths. Another example is that there have been seven to eight window cleaning accidents in each of the last two years. Most of the victims died instantly from falling from the building. As we can see, death traps are everywhere in our daily lives.

According to statistics, in average over 100 people die from traffic accidents in Hong Kong every year, around 20,000 people injured. In fires, 10 to 20 people die in average every year, around 300 to 400 people injured. From industrial accidents, 10 to 20 people die in average every year, around 14,000 injured. As for domestic accidents, there are no government statistics so we cannot know the situation.

According to friends who help fight for the rights of industrial accident victims, ever since the police began using digital communication system, reporters cannot receive police information. Therefore media reports on accidents significantly decreased. This might make us think accidents have lessened, but they are in fact becoming more serious. At the same time, the statistics of accident victims released by the government are not complete or are categorised confusingly. As a result, the public cannot comprehend the overall situation and may underestimate the actual situation of accidents.

One major cause of accidents is people’s lack of safety awareness. Many fire disasters have shown people’s lack of fire prevention awareness and that they do not know how to escape. This reflects that the government did not do enough for safety education. They only make short films on television to teach people how to escape a fire and what to bring with them for the escape, after accidents happen. Another cause is aging of buildings or problems with their design. Hong Kong has a lot of old buildings and community facilities which are dilapidated. Concrete or window falling accidents continuously occur. An extreme example is the disastrous building collapse in To Kwa Wan. Fires in old buildings often happen because of their worn out electrical installations. Moreover, the changing patterns of housing in Hong Kong directly increase the risk of accidents. A typical example is subdivided units – I need not to mention its danger.

Defective design of urban facilities can also be a death trap, especially when it comes to road design, as it can cause severe traffic accidents. For example, the bus which fell off the Tuen Mun Road bridge in July 2003, it resulted in 21 deaths and 20 injured. The tragedy caused a public outcry over the unsafe highway design. Lack of law enforcement of government departments is another trigger. Hong Kong originally has a set of complete legislation, but if some departments enforce the law laxly or do not obey the law, the legislation would be useless. The ferry disaster off Lamma Island revealed that the Marine Department has been sloppy with approvals and safety checks of ferries.

The government should establish a set of safety policies as the essential guidelines for enforcement. The safety policies push each government department to work on accident prevention, to initiate safety legislation and to promote safety education. In my opinion, the most important job is safety education. Safety awareness must be taught to children from a young age, so that the awareness becomes a habit. This includes disaster prevention, escape and road safety etc. Promotion of the legislation for safety is equally important. At the moment, Hong Kong does not have safety policies, meaning the government does not need to initiate legislation for safety issues. For example, cycling with a helmet on. As I mentioned before, cycling accidents are increasing, many people are asking the government to enact a law which enforces everybody to wear a helmet when cycling. But the government refused. If Hong Kong has safety policies, the government must follow the guidelines to create related laws. They will not have excuses to say no.

As for temporary measures, I urge the government to form a multi-departmental committee to review current laws on urban safety and request every department to improve law enforcement. The government can also consider the Audit Commission’s mode of operation and form an urban safety checking unit. This unit must regularly check every department’s enforcement situation, examine the need of renewing related legislations and look into unsafe community facilities and designs – in order to identify hidden dangers in society.

Communities can contribute too. We can look into the World Health Organisation’s “Safe Community” scheme and promote safety culture in local communities. Now, nine communities in Hong Kong are taking part in the scheme. They do safety promotion, education and provide activities within their own communities. They provide safety education for local schools, elderly centres and community centres. They even offer improvement suggestions to the police, fire services units and hospitals within their communities. I hope the government can look into their experiences and provide resources to support every community in Hong Kong in participating in this scheme to promote safety awareness.

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