Normally, tickets for these trips are sold out well in advance as thousands of people who work in the urban centres join in the big rush back to their hometowns to celebrate the festive occasion.
Besides the established bus companies doing roaring business, there are also others who are given one-off permits to use factory, tourist or even school buses to cope with the high volume of travellers.
Given the high number of express buses criss-crossing the country during the period, sufficient laws are in place by the police, Road Transport Department and Road Safety Department to govern the industry. And due to frequent fatal accidents involving express buses in the last five years, a new set of legislation called the Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Code of Practice has been added.
This has created greater awareness and concern among operators over passenger safety. There is also the fear of having their permits suspended or revoked in cases where bus accidents result in many deaths.
As far as enforcement is concerned, there seems to be an upsurge during the Ops Sikap safety campaign which runs a week before and a week after the festive season. This year, Ops Sikap has been renamed Ops Selamat.
But for the most part of the year, the problem lies with lax enforcement and this is when accidents involving express buses are reportedly on the rise.
While many bus companies are investing heavily on new fleets of luxury and double-decker buses, they don't seem to be particularly generous when it comes to the welfare of what I consider to be the most important people in the industry – the bus drivers.
I sat down last week with two drivers at Kuala Lumpur's Hang Tuah Bus Station to get their side of the story and true enough, the impression I got was that the people behind the wheel carrying so many lives on long and monotonous journeys are a demotivated lot.
"Do you have basic pay and how many days off do you have in a week?" I asked.
It came as a shock to me to find that they don't even have a basic salary and are on the road most of the week.
They are paid "trip allowances" of RM80 a trip and to take home between RM2,000 and RM3,000 a month, they have to make as many trips as possible, foregoing sleep and rest.
The Consumers' Association of Penang once highlighted the case of bus drivers staying awake with the help of psychotropic pills. It cited the confession of a drug-using driver plying the Kuala Lumpur-Terengganu route for 10 years. With the pill, he said "eyes are awake but the brain is asleep", adding that most drivers tend to speed because they would otherwise feel sleepy.
The bus drivers I spoke with said most accidents tend to happen towards the end of a long journey when the body is fatigued.
A lot of factors have been blamed for fatal express bus accidents but common sense dictates that a sleepy driver is a major cause, and this seems to be ignored by the authorities and industry players.
In cases where the driver also gets killed in an accident, the authorities investigating the tragedy can not determine the cause because a dead men tell no tales.
Malaysia's worst ever road accident occurred at 4.20am on Aug 13, 2007 when an express bus from Johor Baru skidded and overturned near Bukit Gantang in Perak, killing 20 people including the driver.
According to co-driver V. Veeraman, the driver Rohizan Abu Bakar, had driven 700km over nine hours with only a brief break in between on that fateful day.
Although the two-driver regulation was in place then, it proved to be useless because, according to Veeraman, he himself was fast asleep when the accident happened.
On Dec 26, 2009, 10 passengers died when the express bus they were travelling in crashed through a guardrail near the Ipoh toll plaza. Driver Mohd Kamil Rashid told police he was sleepy at the time of the crash. Being sleepy proved to be no defence as Mohd Kamil is now serving a four-year jail sentence.
There is no excuse whatsoever for a co-driver, who is supposed to take over in the event the first driver becomes tired or sleepy, to be fast asleep as in the Bukit Gantang tragedy.
The fact that this is still happening goes to show that bus companies have done little or nothing to give their drivers a better deal.
To enhance road safety, the government set up a Road Safety Department a few years ago. But this department has not been able to enforce the mandatory use of safety belts on board express buses, despite the high death toll in crashes. If such regulations can be enforced on car drivers and passengers, why not on express bus passengers and drivers?
I'm told that this is because many buses have plywood flooring which is not strong enough to retrofit anchorage points for seat belts. This means that, although on the outside our express buses look tough and modern, the flooring is not up to international standards and poses high safety risks.
The Transport Ministry should revisit this aspect given the vulnerability of these vehicles. It's also time for another rule to enhance the status of bus drivers through more caring incentives.
Everyone must play their part in ensuring safe travel this festive season.
Azman Ujang is a former editor-in-chief of Bernama. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org