The end of the road: An investigation into Oman’s deadly bus accident

22 Jun 2017
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

After the deaths of eight people in last week’s horrific bus accident, Route 15’s reputation as ‘the most dangerous road in Oman’ is under the spotlight yet again. Alvin Thomas reports.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017: it is 6.30pm and the mood of the 34 passengers on a bus travelling along Oman’s Route 15 highway is slowly lifting as the clock ticks towards 6.54pm, the time for Maghrib.

It’s been a long journey already, with the passengers originally boarding the bus in Dubai, in the UAE, to travel to their home city of Sana’a, Yemen, via Salalah.

Many passengers have already started preparing for Iftar as the next stopover will be Al Ghaba – a city two hours away – where the bus will refuel with diesel and the passengers can buy some much-needed sustenance for the long journey ahead.

But in the next few moments their lives will change forever.

And just past 6.30pm, as the bus is cruising along the Qarn Al Alam corridor, 40km from the village of Qarn Al Alam, the unexpected happens: the cabin is filled with the earsplitting and unmistakeable sound of an exploding tyre; the fully loaded, luxury blue coach has just popped its front-left-side tyre, and the driver has lost control of the bus.

On the other side of the road is an oncoming truck, hauling a trailer carrying a large load – a JCB generator used to power electrical units at a road construction site.

Suddenly, the bus slams into the rear of the truck, sheering off the rear axle before taking out the green trailer and its load.

The front of the bus is completely exposed. The impact has caused young children and women sitting at the front of the bus to be hurled onto the road.

Their screams echo around the area, according to a witness on the scene.  And as expected, the extent of the incident is “catastrophic”.

Twisted metal, luggage, blankets, personal items and food have been scattered over the area, as the first of the rescue members from the Royal Oman Police (ROP) arrive at the scene of the crash.

However, the distance of Qarn Al Alam from any nearby hospitals and medical centres mean rescue teams take up to an hour-and-a-half to reach the scene.

Sadly, however, it is too late for some of the 34 passengers who died at the scene. The casualty rate is already two even before rescue services arrive.

The news breaks via the social media platform WhatsApp almost instantly, with many people sharing images of the mangled wreckage.

Meanwhile, far away in the wilayats of Adam and Nizwa, doctors are preparing to take the first of those injured into their intensive care units. One of the on-call doctors (who wishes to be unnamed), who tends to the first of the patients, tells Y: “I was on duty at the time.

“Two of the four patients that were rushed to us were bleeding heavily and there was nothing we could really do to save their lives.

“One of the patients was a seven-year-old child, and he breathed his last moments after he reached our hospital.

“Soon after, we lost another male patient, too. The third patient was talking normally and narrating the incident to us like anyone would but when we put him under observation, I noticed that he had blood in his lungs and severe internal bleeding.”

The man soon collapsed and was rushed to Nizwa Hospital for emergency surgery. However, he died the next day.

“Most of the cases that I tended to were head injuries and severe fractures,” says the doctor. “This is characteristic of accidents that happen at high speeds and are very difficult to treat without the proper surgery facilities.”

The fatalities are confirmed the next day: eight people were killed and 12 were critically injured. Further investigations reveal that it appears to be hot weather conditions and a weakened tyre that caused the blow-out that resulted in the horrific incident.

Image Courtesy: Royal Oman Police

“Initial details of the collision between a trailer truck and an Emirati bus on June 14 indicate that the bus veered to the opposite lane, incoming from Dhofar, due to a burst front left tyre,” says the ROP in an online statement to the media.

The ROP further states: “The road is level and straight, and is clear of any hurdles or road diversions. The speed limit on the road is set at 120km. The white arrows in the picture [that was tweeted with the statement] show the marks on the road as the bus veered to the opposite lane.”

Out of the eight dead, six were Yemeni while the other two were Emirati.

A spokesperson for Yemen’s Ambassador to Oman says: “It causes us great pain to see the loss of the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters.

“Most of the people who took the bus were those who were living and working in the UAE, and were simply travelling back home for Eid.

“Eid was another 10 days away, but many may have seen it as an opportunity to spend some extra time with their families. It is very tragic, this incident.”

The road to Yemen crosses the capital city of Muscat and then connects to Route 15, which ends with the cities of Salalah and Al Mazyunah, before finally entering the border crossing of Yemen.

Route 15 has been deemed the “most dangerous road in Oman” and a “highway of horror” by several safety experts, as it lays witness to several fatal accidents every month.

Just a month ago, on May 18, two buses collided on the Qarn Al Alam corridor, resulting in two deaths and 34 injuries. And on April 28, two people were killed and seven left in intensive care after a Salalah Line Transport bus and a private truck collided near Haima.

A road-safety expert, who declined to be named, told Y: “The cases [of accidents] have only been rising and gaining in frequency, and this is worrying.

“The road to Salalah has grown old but the Government is building roads in the area that will make travel to Salalah safer. But, right now, the buses and trucks still have to drive across this road.

“This means that there will be a chance for accidents involving these vehicles. Right now, the biggest problem is that there is no divider in between each track, and that means people resort to dangerous overtaking.

“The Government is moving in the right direction when it comes to road safety. Lots of campaigns have been done over the past few years to reduce severe fatalities.”

He advises drivers to remain extra cautious while driving on this stretch of road. Drive easy, drive slowly and drive cautiously, he says.

“Take regular breaks and share the driving if possible. And always make sure to check your tyres before setting off. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if you actually did it every 200km.”

As the Eid holidays approach, more people are expected to travel to Salalah and other areas around the Wilayat of Nizwa.

So, before that we felt obliged to take a drive to the village of Qarn Al Alam to assess the situation and report on the road’s conditions. 

We begin our journey before sunrise to get a head start on the trip and before the worst of the traffic kicks in. The drive from Muscat to Manah is fairly straightforward with very little in the way of diversions, damaged roads and traffic.

However, the dual-carriageway narrows in size to a single carriageway. This means we are exposed to traffic from the other side, and also the numerous vehicles that overtake each other.

We also notice that there are no cameras (not even mobile-units) to monitor the traffic on the road. All of this means we see numerous cars skyrocketing past us at implausible speeds.

This, coupled with uneven surfaces and potholes make for a perilous journey. Also note that there are no fuel stations until the village of Al Ghaba, which is 100km away from Manah.

Cellular connectivity is extremely patchy and for the most part, we have to rely on our on-board GPS to get to our desired location.

En route, we find wealth of abandoned tyres and car parts, such as bumpers, side-skirts, wheels, nuts and bolts, air suspension units from high-end buses and even engine gaskets, littering the side of the road. We spot the remains of a Lexus SUV near Al Ghaba, which has abandoned its bumper on the side of the road. The vehicle – based on the marks on the bumper – was clearly hit from the front.

Later in the evening, our source at Adam Hospital reports that two vehicles had been in a head-on collision only moments before us. The victims faced injuries ranging from minor concussion to shock and neck pains.

We stop by the petrol station to enquire about what the villagers  are saying about the accidents that have afflicted the area.

Suleiman Akdhar, a truck driver who frequently travels from Salalah to Muscat in his goods lorry, says: “I have been driving on these roads for 20 years now.

“I haven’t seen any drastic change to this road except for police patrols in the area. The main problem with this road is the width: it isn’t good enough for overtaking, and is certainly not fit for speeding on.”

Interrupting Suleiman, a furious truck driver from India, Jamal Singh, adds: “The biggest problem we have on this road is buses. They drive recklessly and overtake at will. Just today, I had to stop on a yellow divider to avoid being hit by a transport bus taking tourists to Salalah.

“Things only get worse at night, as there are no street lights. These buses blind us with their high beams. They also zoom at very high speeds at night. I think they do close to 160kph then, as the police patrol is very scarce at that time of the day.”

Suleiman then adds: “You cannot also make sudden changes to your direction. It is a straight road and you have to make sure that you have enough space between every vehicle if you are to overtake a vehicle.”

En route, we also spoke to a labourer, who was one of the first on the scene of the accident. He is initially hesitant to speak to us, stating that he was only doing his duty to report to the police.

He also directs us to the crash site, but not before warning us that the vehicle is still parked by the side of the road and that there is blood.

He recalls [roughly translated from Hindi]: “The sight of blood and the noise of the screams will never leave me. I will carry it with me for the rest of my life. But I feel that the people who were travelling on the road and the ROP were collectively able to help at least a few of them survive.”

The number of road accidents in the Sultanate fell by 28.8 per cent during the first quarter of 2017. In the second quarter of this year, they fell by 10 per cent.

While this is progress, it must be noted that Oman has seen a total of 895 accidents in the first quarter of this year alone, of which the number of deaths stood at 150. This is a drop from the previously recorded 1,257 accidents in the first quarter of 2016. Road accidents in January, February and March this year were reported to be 318, 287 and 290, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of injuries fell to 691, a drop of 16.3 per cent.

But the chief executive of Oman Road Safety Association (ORSA), Ali al Barwani, thinks otherwise: “This drop in the number of accidents and deaths may be an achievement for the ROP. And to an extent, it is commendable. However, we need to aim for an accident-free country. We are such an advanced country and yet we force ourselves to make mistakes on the road.”

As a matter of fact, recent statistics reveal that Oman had the most number of road accidents in 2016 in the entire Gulf region.

According to statistics from the GCC Stastical Centre’s website, Oman recorded a total of 4,721 accidents in 2016, closely followed by Saudi Arabia with 4,609 and Qatar with 4,322.

The number of accidents in Oman is 8.89 per 100,000 people in 2016 compared with 8.71 per 100,000 people in 2015, according to the ROP.

However, a source at Nizwa Hospital, says the reason for the higher road fatalities in Oman compared with other GCC countries is the lack of world-class healthcare facilities outside of the capital, Muscat.

Citing the recent accident at Qarn al Alam, he says: “It took roughly an hour and 30 minutes for us to get the patients to the hospital. We even had to channel a few serious cases to Adam Hospital to get a head start on the medical procedures.

“But as you know, we did lose a total of eight people. It could have been reduced if we could have had an ambulance on standby somewhere close by. Usually, we do get air assistance in situations like this. But this time around we had to rely on ROP vehicles to transport the victims.

“We lost one patient due to internal bleeding [the patient that our source from the Adam Hospital referred to] because of the time that was taken to transport him to the location.

“Thankfully, Adam Hospital had reserve blood from our blood bank at the time the patients came in but it must be noted that there is no blood bank anywhere close to that hospital.”

He adds that the hospital relies on Nizwa Hospital for reserve blood. There is a distance of 57km between the two hospitals, or a journey of about 50 minutes.

“That is why, we have to make sure after an accident who goes where.

“I feel very sorry for all the people who have lost their lives on this stretch of road. Of course, a number of the cases of accidents are due to human error and not of mechanical malfunctions.

“So it is also up to the drivers to take into consideration the lives of the people they transport.”

Mwasalat, Oman’s road transport company, also runs services between Muscat and Salalah and return.

Taha al Busaidy, the health, safety and environment manager (HSE) of Mwasalat, says his company takes various steps to keep their buses safe during these long journeys, which other private bus companies do not always follow.

“Following the recent incident at Qarn al Alam, we have instructed our drivers on the driving situation en route to Salalah… again. We are also doing an awareness campaign with SMSs and posters.

“Whatever happened at Qarn al Alam is unfortunate and should never happen again. I certainly hope that we will act together – be it Mwasalat or any other company or private entity – to make our roads safer and a kinder place to commute on. Why? Because all of those who we have lost aren’t going to come back… ever.”

Steps Mwasalat takes to keep its passengers safe

1) The first thing is that we have with us a dedicated journey management team. We follow strict procedures to keep our drivers and passengers safe. For instance, we instruct our drivers to take a 15-minute break every two hours or a 30-minute break every four hours. This ensures that the drivers are fit, fresh and ready to take on the roads.

2) Secondly, we roster on two drivers per trip. In such a case, if one gets fatigued, the other will take over. We also have a duty officer who will call up our drivers (or co-drivers) before the estimated time of arrival and instruct them to take strict breaks.

3) Our drivers are trained at a comprehensive driving course that takes roughly three weeks to complete.

4) Every bus goes through an in-depth check. We also have inspectors on locations across the route map of the bus to inspect the bus.

5) All drivers go through a pre-medical check-up to ensure that they are ready for the journey that lays ahead.

6) All our buses are fitted with speed governors that restrict the bus to 100kph.

7) All buses are fitted with top-class safety features such as anti-lock braking system (ABS), engine bay extinguisher (to retard a fire should the engine catch fire) and many other features.

8) The most important factor is tyres. I know I am saying this last but we put the tyres of the bus through three steps of checking before every trip. First, they are inspected by our engineering team, the mechanics and then the drivers themselves. The bus will only be sanctioned for the journey if they pass this test. 

– Taha al Busaidy

Tips to keep your tyres in check

1. Check your tyre pressure monthly. Tyres can lose approximately one pound per square inch of air (PSI) per month.

2. Inspect tyres regularly, especially before long road trips. At the time you’re checking tyre pressure or washing your car, do a physical inspection of your tyres. Don’t be afraid to get down on your hands and knees to do your inspection.

3. Rotate, rotate, rotate. To maintain even tread wear and to get the maximum life out of your tyres, it’s recommended that you rotate your tyres every 10,000km.

4. Don’t overload your vehicle. Located on the placard on your door frame is information on how much weight your vehicle can safely handle. Overloading a vehicle can also cause tyre failure.

5. Don’t wait until your tyres are on their last legs before you replace them.

6. Don’t install mismatched tyres.

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