Laws passed to impose harsher penalties for dangerous drivers
Drivers who commit traffic offences while under the influence of drugs or alcohol now face significantly tougher penalties after Parliament passed amendments to the Road Traffic Act on Monday (July 8).
Those are among the key changes in the first comprehensive review of criminal offences and penalties of the Act since 1996 designed to make Singapore’s roads safer by strengthening deterrence against irresponsible driving.
The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, first tabled in Parliament in May, was passed after it was debated by 12 Members of Parliament (MPs) and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs). NMP Lim Sun Sun related her own recent experience as the victim of a road accident.
The lawmakers debating the Bill also suggested other measures to enhance road safety, such as making some safety features mandatory in vehicles and engaging high-risk road users such as cyclists.
DRIVING DANGEROUSLY AND WITHOUT CARE
The amendments deal with tougher penalties for errant drivers by streamlining offences into two classes:
Reckless or dangerous driving, or dangerous driving, for short the more serious offence of the two
Driving without due care or reasonable consideration, or careless driving, for short
Dangerous driving will be distinguished from careless driving in these key ways:
When the manner of driving puts other road users at risk and causes other road users to be unable to react in time for example, the motorist is driving against the flow of traffic
Level of risk-taking. When the motorist is driving even though he knows he cannot do so safely for example, the motorist is using a mobile phone while driving
When he is expected to take extra care but did not such as speeding up when approaching a zebra crossing
The degree of punishment for both classes of offences will depend on the level of harm caused. The four levels are: Death (being most severe), grievous hurt, hurt, and endangers life (where no hurt is caused).
The maximum penalties for irresponsible driving offences will be increased. For instance, a first-time offender charged with dangerous driving causing death will be liable to up to eight years in jail. He will also be disqualified from driving for at least 10 years. Before the amendments, the offence carried up to a five-year jail term and disqualification from driving.
Higher penalties for repeat offenders will also be introduced. A second-time offender who has caused grievous hurt from dangerous driving will face up to 10 years’ jail with a two-year minimum sentence. Previously, the maximum punishment was set at two years’ jail and a S$10,000 fine.
DRIVING AFTER CONSUMING ALCOHOL OR DRUGS
Aggravating factors, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, will also lead to more penalties that run consecutively, adding at least one more year to the maximum jail term.
For instance, a first-time offender who causes death by dangerous driving, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, will face an extra maximum jail term of two years, and another minimum disqualification period of two years.
New measures have also been introduced or laws enhanced, to keep convicted irresponsible drivers who have have caused higher levels of harm off the roads more quickly and for longer periods.
These include: Minimum disqualification periods, immediate suspension of driving licences and the forfeiture of vehicles.
WHY THE NEED FOR CHANGES
Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs, spoke about the importance of the enhancements to criminal penalties.
Referring to two separate fatal accidents in 2017 and 2018, Mrs Teo said that in both cases, the motorists were charged with the offence of dangerous driving causing death and were given sentences of five months and seven months of imprisonment respectively.
Calling the penalties manifestly inadequate, Mrs Teo said that sentencing norms need to be raised for irresponsible driving offences, particularly for those that result in death or permanent disabilities.
Harsher penalties will also be imposed on those who drive under the influence. Mrs Teo said that drink-drivers were one of the biggest contributors to serious accidents on the roads.
She said those driving under the influence need to understand the seriousness of their actions. Our intention is for offenders driving under influence to face stiffer penalties, to signal the aggravated seriousness of their actions.
With the changes, extra penalties will be imposed on a motorist who commits a dangerous driving or careless driving offence, and at the same time is found guilty for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or who has refused the Traffic Police’s direction to take a breathalyser or blood alcohol test.
Driving under the influence will warrant a maximum of one year imprisonment, a fine of up to S$10,000, or both, for first-time offenders. This is double the penalty from before.
WHY PREVENTION IS ALSO IMPORTANT
While MPs and NMPs supported the new laws, they agreed that more could be done to prevent offences in the first place, as well as to increase the safety of road users.
Enhancing road infrastructure
Mr Melvin Yong, MP for Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (GRC), called for the removal of discretionary right turns at junctions, which he said had been the site of several high-profile accidents. He said that in those accidents, the drivers appeared to have had an error of judgement in making the right turn.
Professor Lim Sun Sun, an NMP, who was hit by a bus at a road junction last month, also called discretionary right-turn junctions fundamentally problematic. Such junctions are projected to be discontinued in five years, but she urged the Land Transport Authority to shorten the time to prevent any more accidents.
More effective deterrence measures
Dr Chia Shi-Lu, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, said that while he was supportive of the stronger measures to curb reckless driving, he remained concerned that those who had been disqualified from driving were not compliant. He noted an increase in the number of motorists caught without valid driving licences from 921 in 2014 to 1,435 in 2018.
There are probably quite a number who got away, considering the difficulty of detection. As a result, the effectiveness of the minimum disqualification as a deterrent and punishment is undermined, Dr Chia said.
He asked the Ministry of Home Affairs to consider restricting offenders’ access to their vehicles by prohibiting vehicle ownership for various durations, depending on the severity of the offence.
NMP Walter Theseira said that the deterrence effect of fines depended on an offender’s income. While those motorists in the lower income group would be deterred by a fine as it would cause them financial hardship, those with higher incomes were less likely to feel the pinch.
Dr Theseira suggested scaling traffic fines based on the offender’s vehicle open market value instead. This would ensure a penalty system that would appropriately deter high-income motorists, while being fair and reasonable for lower-income motorists.
Engaging high-risk offenders
Several MPs called for a greater engagement of high-risk offenders such as cyclists to reduce the occurrence of accidents.
Mr Yong proposed that cyclists be banned from bus lanes, saying that the lanes are not wide enough to provide a safe distance between cyclists and buses.
Dr Chia also asked for more stringent and frequent cognitive tests and health checks for motorists who are senior citizens.
Acknowledging their suggestions, Ms Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs, said that the Traffic Police already adopted a calibrated approach to working with different road-user groups.
Safety features for vehicles
Several MPs suggested tapping technology to improve the safety features of vehicles.
Mr Ang Hin Kee, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said that motorists could consider installing features such as an auto-brake that automatically slows down the vehicle if it sensed a person or vehicle in its path of travel.
Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai cited the example of regulations in the United States, where it is compulsory for vehicles to have rear-view cameras, and suggested that the ministry consider making similar safety measures mandatory.
Source: Government of Singapore