Tunnel Fire Necessitates Improved Safety Measures
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
May 9, 2012
Summary: The Snow Mountain Tunnel opened for traffic six years ago. On the 7th, a serious vehicle fire resulted in two dead and over 30 injured. The Snow Mountain Tunnel already had safety issues. This disaster shows that added safety measures are required. Only that will ensure the safety of tunnel users.
Full Text below:
The Snow Mountain Tunnel opened for traffic six years ago. On the 7th, a serious vehicle fire resulted in two dead and over 30 injured. The Snow Mountain Tunnel already had safety issues. This disaster shows that added safety measures are required. Only that will ensure the safety of tunnel users.
The Snow Mountain Tunnel is 12.9 kilometers long. It is the fifth longest tunnel in the world. It is the second longest tunnel in Asia. In the event of a fire, the heat and smoke can turn a long tunnel into a deathtrap. Passengers may find escape difficult. Tunnel fires have led to many casualties the world over. In Europe, the Mont Blanc tunnel connects Italy and France. In 1999, a truck fire spread to 35 cars. Thirty-nine people died. They were burned to death or died from smoke inhalation. Since the Snow Mountain Tunnel opened to traffic, nine vehicle fires have occurred. This time people died. The accident revealed numerous safety issues that must be addressed as soon as possible.
The first safety issue is the speed limit. The Snow Mountain Tunnel has made travel between Ilan and Taipei more convenient. The number of tourists have significantly increased. Holiday traffic is especially heavy. Traffic volume has led to complaints about congestion. The speed limit in the Snow Mountain Tunnel has been steadily increased. The speed limit was initially set at 70 kph. It has been gradually increased to 90 kph, the Snow Mountain Tunnel's "design speed." Another 10 kph has been added on top of this. In other words, people can drive 100 kph. This means that 2600-2800 vehicles may pass through the tunnel in one hour. This increases efficiency and alleviates the problem of traffic congestion.
But some experts have voiced objections. Problems arise with actual enforcement. People often reach speeds of 102 or 103 kph before they are slapped with speeding tickets. This is already over the Snow Mountain Tunnel's designed speed. Many drivers who use the Snow Mountain Tunnel say that some people drive well over 100 kph but are not photographed or ticketed.
The second issue is the following distance between vehicles. This accident occurred when a van tire blew out and the driver was forced to slow down. Following vehicles were rear-ended. One pickup truck was violently rear-ended by a Capital Bus Company passenger bus. This caused the fire. The couple in the car was burned to a crisp. Was excessive speed the problem? For the moment we don't know. But the failure to maintain adequate following distance between vehicles was clearly a factor. Otherwise a rear-end collision would not have occurred.
According to regulations, vehicles in the Snow Mountain Tunnel must maintain at least 50 meters between themselves and the vehicle in front. In practice, many drivers ignore this. Some tailgate. Some drive too slowly. If the driver in the rear is in a hurry, he tends to tailgate. This makes it impossible for drivers to increase their following distance.
Too high a speed limit, plus failure to maintain safe following distances, plus a long closed tunnel, means three times the risk. Once something goes wrong in front, an accident becomes highly likely. An accident in tunnel dramatically increases the risk of serious injury.
The third issue concerns escape routes and refuge areas. In this particular accident the two fatalities were the direct result of a rear-end collision. Other passengers were lucky to escape. Some people received blunt force injuries or suffered from smoke inhalation. According to some passengers the escape procedure was chaotic. People could not hear the escape instructions over the PA system. Amidst the panic, people could not find the passageways to refuge areas. One escape door jammed in the open position and could not be closed. This allowed smoke to pursue those seeking refuge. Dense smoke is often more lethal than flames. The problem with the emergency exits must be corrected, as soon as possible. They need to be able to block the smoke with equal effectiveness in any situation. Only then will those seeking refuge be protected.
Exhausting the smoke from the Snow Mountain Tunnel took only 37 minutes, The result was considered good. Apart from the car accident, no other people were killed. This was fortunate. This incident has exposed a number of safety issues. These must be corrected. Tunnel users must be protected.
Some object to raising the speed limit in the Snow Mountain Tunnel. Others responded immediately, expressing powerful disagreement. The Snow Mountain Tunnel offers too many conveniences. That is why traffic congestion is inevitable. The volume of traffic is simply too large to digest. That was what led to intense local demands to raise the speed limit.
This accident tells us safety must come first. The risks for the Snow Mountain Tunnel are greater than the risks for ordinary highways. An accident could put an entire tunnel, filled with vehicles and passengers, in danger. For the sake of public safety, the rules must be tightened. Therefore the speed limit in the Snow Mountain Tunnel should be reduced. Drivers driving too slowly or who illegally change lanes must be prosecuted. Vehicle photography and detection systems must be installed, as soon as possible. Following distances must be strictly enforced.
Safety has no price tag. One may return home early, or one may return home late. But one must be able to travel safely. One must be able to return home,period. This is the bottom line.