World class design but third world maintenance

Our Works Minister recently stated that our highways and those in many developed countries have been deigned based on British Standards. Therefore the designs of our highways can be said to be equivalent to world standards.

As the retired consultant civil engineer experienced in road designs in Malaysia and one who has traveled to many parts of the world, I could not help but to agree with our Works Minister on the standards of road designs in this country.

In Malaysia, all expressways are designed for a maximum speed of 120kph. The geometry designs i.e. pavement width and horizontal and vertical curves are important factors that determine the design speed, a speed that will allow the drivers to drive in a consistent manner.

Also, the design of highways will have to incorporate sufficient safety roadside furnishings to minimise damage and increase the chances of survival in case of accidents. These include adequate road safety zones, roadside table or emergency lane and crash cushions.

Are our highways constructed and maintained to comply with the standards in which they have been designed?

I frequently travel the southern section of the North-South Expressway (NSE) from my home in Petaling Jaya to Muar/Pagoh in Johore. I am therefore very familiar with the condition of this section of the expressway.

From my observation, this section of the expressway seems to have more roadside furnishings than what it has been designed for. We find teak and other trees planted and huge signboards with solid pillars erected by the side of the expressway without any crash barriers. Even in the medians, trees and palms are grown. In the event of a crash, these will invariably increase damage and decrease the chances of survival.

Though there are more roadside furnishings than necessary, the insufficiency of appropriate road signage seems to have missed the attention of the highway concessionaires and the highway authorities.

The southern section of NSE from Alor Gajar to Ayer Keroh, a distance of about 20km, used to have a speed limit of 90kph since the expressway was opened more than a decade ago. The rationale for the lower speed limit was because of crosswinds prevailing at a few locations along this section of the expressway.

In spite of this, I have not had the opportunity to encounter any in all my years of travel along this stretch. There are signboards and wind cones placed in a number of locations to warn motorists of their presence. But most of the time I notice the wind cones hanging almost motionless on top of their poles.

However, in spite of the speed limit many motorists chose to ignore it. On a few occasions when I was cruising along at around 90kph, my car would suddenly wobble, not by a strong gust of crosswind but by an expressed bus zooming past me!

But a few months ago, all the 90kph signposts, at about 5km apart along the whole stretch, have mysteriously gone missing on both sides of the expressway. What remains near the end of the stretch is a signpost to inform motorists of a speed limit of 110kph at 2km ahead! It looks like this stretch does not have any speed limit and motorists can go beyond 110kph.

Many foreigners from the west dislike driving on Malaysian highways and one of the reasons is that there is a lack of well-positioned and clear road signage along the highways.


There is a story of an Englishman who wanted to visit our historic Melaka not long after NSE was opened. He drove all the way south along NSE from Sungei Besi Toll and reached Johore Bahru but could not find the exit to Melaka! Of course he was not aware that to go to Melaka he had to exit to go to Ayer Keroh first. Unfortunately the name Melaka was then not on the signpost at the exit to Ayer Keroh!

The Englishman then concluded that Malaysian highways were constructed and maintained basically for local motorists. But now even the local motorists are at a loss at certain stretches of the NSE.

Yes, the design of our highways may be of world standard but their maintenance and operation leave a lot to be desired. It is another classic case of a first world facility operated and maintained with third world mentality!


The story was published in Star Two under "Speaking up" on 14/06/05. 2008