KUALA LUMPUR - Thousands of commuters could find themselves stranded with no transport home for the Chinese New Year and the extended weekend with express bus companies caught in an insurance bind.
A new condition for insurance has taken the companies and even regulators by surprise and may force hundreds, if not thousands, of buses off the roads.
The Malaysian Motor Insurance Pool (MMIP) wants all buses to have a special tracking device before they can get insurance and, thus, road tax.
The requirement came just a few weeks before the festive rush home begins.
Some bus operators said they received a letter from the MMIP in mid-January telling them to install the special tracking device in their buses from Feb 1.
The letter said the new telematics product was being introduced to address the "high incidence" of bus accidents and deaths.
It said the device would have to be installed in the buses so MMIP could monitor and alert companies of drivers who did not meet certain standards.
Among others, the bus telematics device can record a driver's behaviour in real-time, such as how he takes corners, uses the brakes and his speeding pattern.
The letter said the devices were to be installed at least two weeks before a bus' motor policy renewal date "to avoid any inconvenience".
The MMIP said in the letter that it was partnering with a company known as Vehicle Telematics Online Services Sdn Bhd for the device installation.
A booking form viewed by The Star showed that the device and installation would cost RM2,300 (S$780) apiece. An off-site installation would cost an extra RM200. On top of this, an operator would be charged an annual fee of RM900 per bus.
Any vehicle that does not have an insurance policy cannot apply for the road tax, keeping them off the roads.
While bus operators were not against the measure, many opposed the fees charged.
"If I have 100 buses, my initial cost will be RM340,000. I don't have the money!" Johor Bus Operators Association president J Suchdav said.
He said the MMIP did not speak to operators before coming up with the requirement.
The new fees are an extra pain for express bus operators, who cannot offset their costs, and have had to deal with fares remaining unchanged since 2008.
While the total number of buses that are unable to renew their insurance policies by this week is unknown, Suchdav said "about 100" buses would not be on Johor streets over the holidays.
Konsortium Transnasional Bhd managing director Tan Sri Mohd Nadzmi Mohd Salleh said he only knew about the move through the "industry grapevine".
He said express buses already had GPS devices installed in them - thanks to an earlier requirement by the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) - and that another was not needed.
"The GPS is already doing that, why do you need so many systems?" he said angrily.
He said KTB's operations would not be affected this Chinese New Year, but worried about the costs to his company's 1,400-plus buses.
Pan Malaysian Bus Operators Association (PMBOA) president Datuk Ashfar Ali said some of his members might not be able to send their buses out this week.
"There will be fewer buses that we can put on the road, so I'm asking them (MMIP) not to implement it now," he said.
He said that while the PMBOA was concerned about accidents and safety, the MMIP's move was not the right way to do it.
"We want them to postpone this until April or May until we can resolve this issue," he said.
Online reports showed that there are 4,718 express buses, from over 47,000 buses nationwide, including school, tour and other coaches.