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SMRT should rectify safety lapses even if not legally responsible for Fajar LRT death

Despite the horrific death of a 43-year-old man in March, SMRT’s senior vice president for the Circle Line and Bukit Panjang LRT, Chia Chun Wah, said on Wednesday (Aug 16) that SMRT had no plans to rectify safety lapses identified during the coroner’s inquiry. It appears that despite the fatal incident, SMRT has yet to conduct a safety review, or if it has, it has failed to at least put in place low cost measures to address obvious safety lapses.

During the inquiry, Mr Chia said that SMRT has no plans to put up signage telling passengers what happens when they press the plunger. It also has no plans to mark out the place in between electrified train tracks as a safe place; neither does it intend to convey this message to passengers. “We don’t publicise that” was his answer. This cannot be the right attitude to adopt towards passenger safety.

SMRT has a duty of care to commuters who enter their premises and run the risk, however minute, of being run over by one of their poorly maintained trains. The question is what that standard of care should be. The cost of putting up signage and marking out safe spots is low compared to the risk of death, a very real risk given recent tragic events, and given the lack of proper screen doors between the platform and the tracks. Therefore, SMRT owes passengers a higher standard of care than it currently provides and it should rectify safety lapses.

Nonetheless, there are several possible reasons why SMRT may be absolved of legal liability for the death of Ang Boon Tong due to negligence. One reason is that the State Coroner has already ruled Mr Ang’s death a tragic misadventure (this ruling can, of course, be challenged in a higher court). Another is that, on the facts, SMRT might not have been able to prevent Mr Ang’s death anyway, even if it had installed implemented the measures mentioned above. Therefore, the “but-for” test for causation in law is not satisfied and no claim in the tort of negligence will succeed even if it is accepted that SMRT has breached its duty of care here. But being absolved of legal liability in this one case does not mean SMRT will escape liability in future cases where causation can be established. There is also the fact that SMRT’s aim should not merely be the avoidance of legal liability. Doing the bare minimum required by law is a poor risk mitigation strategy.

What about having more staff members monitor the CCTV feeds or ensuring that at least one person is watching the feeds at all times? Would hiring a few more people to ensure that the feeds are monitored at all times be too burdensome for the same operator that made $109.3 million in profit in FY2016. The problem arises when one is forced to place a value on life which must then be measured against the total manpower costs required to ensure all CCTV feeds are monitored at all times on all three LRT lines.

The Bukit Panjang LRT line is monitored by a total of 143 CCTV cameras and is 7.8 km long. The Sengkang LRT Line is 10.7 km long and the Punggol LRT Line is 10.3 km long. This means that an estimated 528 CCTV cameras are needed to cover all three lines. If one person can monitor 46 CCTV feeds, and assuming only two shifts need to be covered, 23 additional full-time personnel have to be hired just to ensure all the feeds are monitored all the time.

So how much is life worth? The law does place a value on injuries in general. If the cost of avoiding the risk is extremely high and the risk is extremely low, the alleged tortfeasor is only required to meet a low standard of care. But what happens when the injury in question is death? It’s a tricky question with no easy answers. In this case, at least, one simple solution would be to install proper platform screen doors which shut fully instead of the current ones with a fixed opening.

Update: SMRT has now said that it will put up additional signs and raise commuter awareness about the emergency stop button.