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WP: Curb Foreigners Driving on Our Roads without Singapore Driving Licences

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Now THAT’S called Saving Gaia.

The Worker’s Party’s Gerald Giam has spoken in parliament, highlighting the need to toughen traffic rules to prevent accidents and traffic-related deaths. He called attention to the dangers posed by using mobile devices while driving, and allowing foreigners to drive on our roads for up to a year without a valid Singapore driving licence. This is his speech:

Madam Speaker,

There were 6,426 fatal and injury accidents on our roads last year.[1] While this is down from a high of 8,625 in 2010, every serious accident is one too many, because they each impact the lives of not just the victims but their families as well. Statistically speaking, our the daily commute on the roads is often our most dangerous activity each day.

Because of this, road safety is a matter which warrants serious attention by both policymakers and citizens, drivers and pedestrians. I therefore support any measures to enhance safety on our roads.

This Bill enhances regulations on several road safety and licensing issues, but there are some which could be further tightened. I will focus on two aspects of this Bill today: the use of mobile communication devices while driving, and the recognition of foreign driving licences and driving permits.

Mobile communication devices

First, on mobile communication devices.

I was recently rear-ended by another car while I was stuck in traffic. While the driver claimed that she was not texting while driving, there must have been something that distracted her to cause her to crash into my stationary vehicle.

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), a driver is about 4.9 times more likely to get into an accident when using a mobile phone while driving. Even using a hands-free accessory is not much safer – it has been found to increase the risk by about 3.8 times.[2] The UK’s Department of Transport said reaction times for drivers using a phone are around 50% slower. Even careful drivers can be distracted by a call or text, and a split-second lapse in concentration could result in a crash. [3]

While there are many studies with varying conclusions, one thing is clear: Driving a car safely requires high levels of attention and concentration, and the use of mobile devices is a distraction which could result in serious accidents and even deaths.

Ideally, no one should be allowed to use their mobile devices while driving. However, we don’t all live in Road Safety Community Park. Our people lead busy lives and multi-tasking is the order of the day, sometimes even when driving.

At a minimum, we should have a regulatory regime where the most risky and distracting activities are clearly banned, while at the same time the authorities constantly remind drivers through public education of the dangers of using their mobile devices while on the roads.

Our message to drivers should be clear: Realise that all use of your mobile devices will distract you from driving safely. If you choose to use your mobile device while driving, be aware that certain particularly risky activities will attract heavy penalties.

Clause 14 of the Bill replaces Section 65B and attempts to clarify the law by changing “mobile telephone” to “mobile communication device”, so as to encompass not just phones, but also tablet computers. It prohibits using any of the device’s functions while the vehicle is in motion.

However, there are some situations in which it appears this Bill does not cover. For example, if the device is mounted on a holder, the driver could be checking email, watching videos or playing games, while the vehicle is in motion.

Introducing a definition of “communicative function” in the Bill could unintentionally limit the scope of prohibited devices. With a very fast-changing technology landscape, the scope of “communicative functions” of mobile devices could render this definition obsolete soon.

There is a new breed of emerging technologies called “wearables”, like smartwatches, which essentially function like portable computers, but do not need to be held in the hand. Were these considered when drafting this legislation?

Members may know about Google Glass, which is a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display developed by the Internet giant, Google. It is worn like a pair of spectacles with a small LCD screen attached, which can display maps, text or videos within the user’s field of vision. It can also snap pictures and record videos. The device is voice activated, so there is no need to “hold” the device to operate it.

Some regulators and lawmakers around the world have raised safety concerns about Google Glass, which was introduced last year. The UK’s Department of Transport has indicated that it is “not acceptable” under existing regulations for motorists in the UK to wear it.[4] In West Virginia in the U.S., a state legislator introduced an amendment to ban the use of Google Glass while driving.[5]

I would like to ask the SMS two questions:

What is the Government’s position on the use of the communicative functions of a mobile device while the vehicle is in motion, if the device is mounted and not held in the hand? This includes using the normal phone functions or GPS navigation software, whether installed on the phone or on a third party device.

Could the SMS clarify whether using “wearables”, including Google Glass or smartwatches, are prohibited while the vehicle is in motion?

Recognition of foreign driving licences

I would now like to raise some concerns about the recognition of foreign driving licences and driving permits. Clause 8 seeks to tighten Section 38 to require that work pass holders, who need to drive as part of their job, must now obtain a local driving licence within a “prescribed period” from the date of issuance of their work passes. From MHA’s press release on 4 August 2014, I understand this prescribed period is 6 months.

This is shorter than the 12 months that is currently allowed for all holders of valid foreign driving licences who are not citizens or permanent residents of Singapore. However, I believe that the regulations may not be tight enough.

Six months is a long time for someone who does not have a valid Singapore driving licence to be driving around on our streets. In fact, it only takes a few minutes for a serious accident to happen – and indeed such accidents are more likely to happen within the first few days for a driver who is new to our roads, than several months later when he is more familiar with driving in Singapore.

A foreign driver who is new to Singapore will tend to be unfamiliar with our roads – our street signs, our road markings and our driving culture. In many cases, they may be used to driving on the opposite side of the road that we drive on.

In addition, there is a risk that even a “valid” foreign driving licence may not mean that the person is sufficiently trained and competent to drive. In some countries, corruption plays a big part in the issuance of driving licences.

A research study which appeared in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, which is published by Harvard and MIT, found that 71% of people who obtained a driving licence in New Delhi did not even take the licensing exam. [6] Equally worrying is that 62% were deemed not competent enough to drive after taking an independent test organised by the researchers just after they obtained their licences.

The study found that the average licence applicant paid about 2.5 times the official fee to obtain a licence. Most of these extra-legal payments are not outright bribes to officials but fees to “agents”, who “assist” individuals in the process of obtaining their driver’s licences without taking a test. This is corroborated by a report in Bloomberg Businessweek, which gave an account of how dozens of men stand outside the front gate of the Road Transport Office of a certain Indian city, swarming around prospective licence applicants, offering “shortcuts through the red tape for just 3,000 rupees”, or 65 US dollars.[7]

Madam, it is not my intention to single out any country, as many other countries have similar corruption problems in their bureaucracies. But I am very concerned that many of these unqualified drivers may be on our roads right now as we debate this Bill. They could be driving through our school zones and housing estates, posing a danger to pedestrians, other drivers, their passengers and even themselves.

Can I ask the SMS:

How does the Police satisfy itself that a foreign driving licence is legitimately obtained when allowing a foreigner to use it to drive in Singapore without a valid Singapore driving licence?

Why is there a need to give a 6 to 12 month window for foreigners to drive in Singapore without a valid Singapore driving licence? I note the SMS said in his speech that this is based on the practices of other jurisdictions and the views of industry stakeholders. Can I ask who these stakeholders are and do they include drivers and pedestrians who do not employ foreign drivers?

Would it not be more prudent, and in the interest of public safety, for all foreigners to take and pass the theory and practical driving tests in Singapore before being allowed to drive?

I understand there are other categories of foreigners besides work pass holders who may need to drive. These include visiting forces or tourists. Can we be more selective about the countries from which we recognise foreign driving licences, just like we do for foreign university degrees in certain professions? Many countries do operate clean bureaucracies that ensure that only drivers who have legitimately passed a driving test are issued licences.

Conclusion

Madam Speaker, with thousands of fatal and injury accidents on our roads each year, closing every gap in our legislation that lets less-than-competent drivers ply our roads could save many lives and limbs. I urge the Government to consider these suggestions to further enhance road safety and I look forward to the SMS’s responses to my questions.

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