Singapore Needs a Road Safety Culture

This article first appeared in the Zaobao bilingual commentary column on 25 October 2003 in English, with translation in Chinese.

In recent weeks a spate of fatal road accidents, some involving school children at pedestrian crossings, have stirred the nation’s conscience and drawn attention to the urgent need to ensure that our roads are safe for everyone.

Apart from deaths from illnesses, one of the biggest threats to one’s life in highly motorised Singapore is to be killed in a traffic accident. Are most accidents preventable? Certainly yes, if all road users, be they motorists, motor cyclists, cyclists, taxi drivers, heavy vehicle drivers and pedestrians, diligently practise road safety rules that are designed for their protection.

In reality, however, these rules are honoured more by their breach than compliance. So a vehicle in irresponsible hands can be a most lethal weapon. Take the average Singaporean driver as an example. A usually rational person can be transformed suddenly into a demon behind a driving wheel. Once his impatience and selfishness gets the better of him, he becomes recklessly indifferent to the traffic rules and safety of others just to get his own way.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Our taxi and heavy vehicle drivers also drive like maniacs on the roads, while our motor-cyclists and cyclists, seemingly unaware of their particular vulnerability, habitually weave in and out of traffic dangerously, whenever it suits them. The pedestrian, too, knowingly jay walks in the face of fast-moving traffic. Tragically, many paid with their precious lives in vain.

Why are these inconsiderate road behaviours so common in Singapore, when its citizens are regularly held up by others as law-abiding and intelligent people? Do they not realise their foolhardiness and that they are tarnishing the Republic’s otherwise good image?

First and foremost, road safety consciousness is not ingrained in Singaporean road users. The drivers often get away with impunity with serious offences like speeding, running the red traffic light and switching lane abruptly without signalling because police patrols and traffic cameras cannot be everywhere. Furthermore, unlike in Japan and the more advanced Western countries, there is a marked absence of strong peer pressure here to deter these anti-social behaviours.

One of the worst character traits of Singaporeans is that a traffic violator would often react aggressively if he is told of his misdoings, and not infrequently, injuries or deaths had resulted in consequence of road rages. It is, therefore, not surprising that uncivilised road conducts are pervasive as most aggrieved parties would rather tolerate these culprits than asserting their rights with unpredictable consequences.

Singapore Traffic Police Poster

Many concerned Singaporeans have repeatedly urged that remedial actions be taken to improve the traffic situation. Some of their useful suggestions have been actively debated in newspaper columns and other channels but forgotten after a while.

In my view, government and the public must intensify their efforts to tackle this pressing problem as a joint national undertaking in order to prevent more mayhem on our roads.

The following proposals are put forth in the hope that they would generate more public discussion:

  1. A comprehensive review of our traffic and related laws be carried out to ensure that they keep abreast with changing circumstances. Where appropriate, substantially heavier fines and enhanced punishments be inflicted on those who commit serious offences. It is true but lamentable that Singaporeans generally respond well to stricter application of the laws. The courts’ success in dealing with road rage cases comes to mind.
  2. Illegal parking and traffic obstruction occur daily all over Singapore, particularly near schools, markets, religious institutions, food centres, in housing estates and even on busy roads, often leading to traffic chaos, frayed tempers and even accidents with injuries or deaths. It’s time we stopped these irresponsible acts, especially when parking lots are readily available in the vicinity.
  3. A road safety culture must be nurtured and take roots here. An imaginative road safety campaign, with sustained support of employers, employees, trade unions, media and others, be held at regular intervals with effective follow-up actions aimed at the whole community. If Singaporeans can repeat the admirable team spirit during the SARS outbreak, our roads definitely will be safer.
  4. Ultimately, our schools and parents can and should play a pivotal role in transmitting the road safety and civic consciousness as a way of life to the young under their charge. Their influence in this regard cannot be over emphasised.

To use a time-honoured cliche, lets together make road safety the responsibility of everyone in Singapore.

Updated Development on Driving Habits in Singapore to Date

Professor Tommy Koh, a well-known public figure here, recently wrote an article for Singapore’s leading English Language national newspaper, The Straits Times, with the caption “The seven habits of the Singapore driver”, which aptly captures the current bad driving habits referred to in my above article written 16 years ago.

Both these two articles clearly show that the Singaporean driving standard has not improved since 2003 and in my view, has further deteriorated despite heavier legal penalties introduced from time to time to reverse the situation.

I fully share and endorse Prof Koh’s implied astute observation that those Singaporeans who had lived abroad like in US and UK tend to be more responsible and considerate while driving back home, having had the benefit of seeing better driving standards there. However, in my view, after some lapse of time, some would have been influenced by the local bad driving habits so prevalent here, perhaps out of frustration that their better driving standards do not impact on them. To use an oft-quoted saying, join them if you can’t change them!

To be fair to Singaporean driving habits, I must point out that not all drivers here are reckless or impatient on the road and a large number of them would steadfastly continue to be more responsible and courteous behind the wheels as the right and decent thing to do.

Lam Pin Foo

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