Becoming a safety-first nationKorea seems to be becoming a very dangerous society that does not show any respect for safety or value for human lives. While all of society has been outraged over the country’s deplorable safety standards in the aftermath of the sinking of the Sewol ferry, a subway collision in the middle of Seoul injured more than 200. If not for a quick response by the driver of the incoming train, the crash into a car that was stalled at the station could have led to major casualties.
Over the past few days, a troubled cable car in Daegu was closed down after it stopped several times and injured more than 10 people. A ferryboat heading to Geoje Island carrying 140 people stopped in the middle of its trip and another with 390 people heading to the Dokdo islets had to return to Ulleung Island due to engine glitches.
The cause of the Sangwangsimni Station collision discovered by Seoul police was preposterous. According to a preliminary investigation, a staff member of the Seoul Metro signal department noticed from the screen that the signal at the station was not working properly. But he did not bother to take action, assuming that it was just a “routine” problem. The first train was behind schedule by one minute and 30 seconds because its doors didn’t close correctly, but the driver did not report the error to the subway’s central control tower. The conductor ignored the requirement that he or she must report if a train is delayed by more than 40 seconds.
Why is safety so “routinely” ignored? Seoul Metro and the city administration announced that the subway signal system showed problems four days prior to the accident. Malfunctions were reported in the signal and automatic train-stopping system in the capital’s subway lines as early as 2008. Other subway lines are susceptible to similar problems. Many conductors choose to turn off the stop switch and instead stop trains manually.
Cars on one train can differ in manufacturing year, country of origin and be digital or analogue models, often leading to mechanical difficulties and incompatibility. But the city government has sharply reduced its budget to ensure subway safety. An audit showed the subway operator had only undergone safety education as a formality.
If hundreds of young lives lost at sea aren’t enough, what more does the country need to shape up on safety actions? We can no longer excuse ourselves by blaming our collective pali-pali (hurry hurry) social psyche. Society must thoroughly re-examine and rebuild safety infrastructure and implement punitive measures to restore Korea as a safety-first nation.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 7, Page 30