The driver behind one of the deadliest bus accidents in Hong Kong that claimed 19 lives in 2018 has been jailed for 14 years and disqualified from driving for the rest of his life, after a judge found him using the vehicle like a weapon against his passengers.
The fatal traffic accident happened in Tai Po at 6.11pm on February 10 when part-time driver Chan Ho-ming, 32, was driving a KMB, carrying 86 passengers from Sha Tin Racecourse to Tai Po Central.
On Tuesday, the High Court heard Chan lost control of the double-decker just six minutes into the journey as he was speeding downhill while negotiating a sharp right bend on Tai Po Road, causing the vehicle to hit multiple sign posts – including one carrying a speed reduction warning – topple over and knock down a bus stop shelter.
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Chan only suffered minor injuries to his hands, but 18 passengers died at the scene while one was certified dead in hospital on the same night. The remaining 67 passengers were rushed to 12 hospitals across the city with various injuries, 19 of which were classified as cases of grievous bodily harm.
Chan had accused the bus company of providing improper training after he pleaded guilty to 38 counts of manslaughter and dangerous driving.
But Madam Justice Susana Remedios observed the defendant’s erratic and deplorable driving “in a kangaroo manner” was more likely a retaliation for being scolded by passengers over his tardiness. She found that he had intentionally made the journey uncomfortable from the beginning and relished in the thrill from the alarm he knew he was causing, with utter disregard for safety.
“You used the vehicle as a weapon against your passengers,” Remedios told the defendant, whom she described as “an enormous danger on the road”.
With reference to the passengers, she continued: “After finishing what was supposed to be an enjoyable occasion at the races, their lives and the lives of their families and loved ones have been altered forever.”
Chan did not visibly react to his sentence.
Case officer Wong Sze-pan, a chief inspector, welcomed the judgment, which he considered to be of sufficient deterrence and reflective of the seriousness of the offences.
But the victims and relatives who attended the hearing found the jail term too lenient.
A man surnamed Chiu, who lost his father, said he had stopped working since the accident, in order to take care of his grieving mother as she had developed suicidal tendencies.
“Nineteen lives,” Chiu said. “One year for each life and still that wouldn’t be enough.”
The incident had sparked questions over whether bus services in the city were being managed with sufficient training and support, and prompted an independent review that recommended providing funding for franchised bus operators to promote new safety technology and improving drivers’ working conditions, among others.
It was the second deadliest bus accident in Hong Kong, after the crash in 2003 that killed 21 passengers when a double-decker collided with a container truck on Tuen Mun Road and plunged 30 metres into a valley.
Rescuers had found bodies piled up inside the bus and blood all over the place, with body tissues, broken limbs and copies of red-stained racing paper scattered on the ground.
Surviving passengers recalled Chan drove like he was “throwing a tantrum”, at a speed much higher than usual despite being scolded for driving too fast. Some also recalled that he did not apply the brake while negotiating turns or going down slopes, and held onto the handrails tightly.
Latest reports obtained by the prosecutors showed these survivors were still coping with scars and lingering pain as well as psychological distress that included post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares and fears of buses.
The black box of the bus showed that Chan had applied harsh acceleration just six seconds into his drive and decelerated less than three minutes later, before accelerating, braking and finally speeding 5.4km/h over the 70km/h limit, driving 65 per cent faster than the average speed of other buses.
Investigation also revealed that Chan was alerted by a feedback device that flashed and beeped whenever the black box recorded improper driving.
Chan, who declared his occupation as a cook, pleaded guilty last September to 19 counts of manslaughter, punishable by life imprisonment, and another 19 of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm, the prison term for which is capped at seven years.
He was initially charged with one count of dangerous driving causing death, punishable by 10 years in prison, but that was replaced by the present 38 counts following further investigation and legal advice.
The court heard Chan obtained his driving licences for private car and public bus in 2006 and 2013 respectively, and became a part-time driver on an hourly rate with no designated route since 2017.
He had never received a ticket but had been fined HK$900 (US$116) for careless driving in 2014, over another bus accident caused by a bad manoeuvre in a car park just upon joining KMB.
In a letter to the judge, Chan acknowledged that his negligent driving and momentary lapse of judgment had caused the serious accident and brought distress to many.
“I am deeply remorseful and regretful,” he wrote. “I am sorry for the victims and their families, as this accident caused serious injuries to them and made them lose their loved ones.”
But he also pleaded for leniency as he noted that it was not his intention to harm anyone and that his family needed him to resume his role as the main breadwinner.
Other mitigation letters depicted Chan as a decent man and a good, pious son.
Defence counsel David Boyton said his client had lost control of the vehicle because he was speeding by 5.4km/h on an unfamiliar route that he had only driven twice before the fatal accident, in November 2017 and January 2018.
The counsel said his client had not been trained properly by KMB as the company had shown him the route in a private car on a regular day, instead of a bus on a racing day.
Boyton further said that Chan was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 12, which could explain why he was socially inept and did not respond to passengers’ criticisms of his driving.
“He was not, in fact, in a tantrum,” Boyton said.
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