Keeping Singapore’s Roads Safe

Today, I read the news of two young boys killed on the road by a cement truck and somehow, my mood was terribly affected. Two young lives were lost tragically. Though some may blame individuals such as the driver involved in the accident, but I feel that such traffic accidents are often results of structural problems with our laws.

Why would a person speed or drive recklessly? The answer is very simple. The human brain is a master of trade-offs without us even realizing. Driving within speed limits is time-consuming and therefore costly. Driving carefully requires energy that could be devoted to daydreaming, talking on the phone or chatting with passengers. There is a price to pay for driving carefully and within the speed limit.

Our laws met out punishments for those who speed or drive dangerously. Unfortunately, the punishments are merely a slap on the wrist. One could speed up to 40km/h and get away with a small fine of less than $200. The demerit points hardly come into people’s mind at all. For a person with a clean record, they could easily speed and get away with a meager fine and then start paying attention to his points. 8 points is insufficient to make anyone sweat over his driving license.

Why are people unafraid of the demerit points and fine? The answer is simple. The expected rate of getting caught is very, very low. If the probability of getting caught for speeding is one out of every 500 trip (it is very possible to escape getting caught for the entire year, driving 2/3 of all days in a round trip), the actual price to pay for is less than 1/500 x 200 (40 cents). If the cost of speeding per trip is only 40 cents, many people would not bother to drive safely as the time or energy saved is worth a lot more than that.

One may argue that not everyone who drives knows statistics and is able to calculate the actual cost of speeding. However, I would argue that our human brain is capable of making such decisions intuitively. Go into any public car parks and one can easily verify that there are many people who do not put parking coupons. Why is that the case? By the same logic, if one is caught every 20, the cost of not putting a coupon is 1/20 x 30 ($1.50). The cost is roughly the cost of putting coupons. For people who are staying beyond a couple of hours, it makes sense to cheat. However, one hardly sees people parking in unauthorized lots (loading and unloading or handicap lots). The risk of getting caught is exactly the same as before (1/20) but the cost of getting caught is way higher (1/20 x 150 or $7.50). The cost is therefore big enough to be a deterrent to many.

Logic tells us that when the probability of getting caught is low, the penalty should be harsher. People have ways to estimate the expected value of penalty in their heads and the actual penalty is way lower than the stated penalty (as one can easily get away). To keep our road safe, we need to relook at our arcane traffic laws and the penalties.

Here are my proposals:

Issue Vocational Driving License
A lot of accidents are caused by professional drivers (heavy vehicles, taxi drivers, bus drivers, delivery drivers etc.). The key to ensure compliance is to make the expected cost of speeding and reckless driving higher than their alternatives. If professional drivers are required to have a professional driving licenses that are revoked when they speed more than 20 km/h or are caught with dangerous driving, we can almost be certain that they will comply as their livelihood depends on it.

Regulate Trucks and other Heavy Vehicles
Many heavy vehicle drivers are paid by trips. Unfortunately, such practices incentivize the drivers to speed as they can complete more trips within a given day and thereby making the roads less safe. To solve the problem, we could regulate the companies’ practices to ensure that each driver cannot take more than a certain number of trips per day. In fact, to ensure that drivers do not speed, one could even offer incentives to encourage them. If the drivers are paid for by duration of the trip (subject to a cap), one could expect the drivers to drive slowly as speeding would cause them to earn lesser. This compensation structure could be enforced by LTA.

Increased Penalty for Speeding and Dangerous Driving

Hiking the fines for undesirable driving habits is a sure way to curb irresponsible driving. When the expected cost for non-compliance is sufficiently high, people would start modifying their behavior.

Hopefully, with better laws and enforcement, our roads would be safer.


Posted on January 28, 2013, in What's Happening?. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Policing of traffic should increase ten-fold. The standard of driving in Singapore is really appalling, in terms if speeding, indicating, giving way and general recklessness, and I put this down to drivers knowing they’ll pretty much never get pulled up for it. The net result is a road toll far too high for a country the size of Singapore.

    • Ben, increased policing do take up resources. There is a limit on how many more police we can put on the streets. However, as expected penalty is a product of the probability of getting caught x actual penalty, increasing the penalty ten folds would do similar trick as the expected penalty increase by ten fold too.

  2. The increase in resources would be more than covered by revenue from fines. A ten-fold increase is coming from a very low base, so while it sounds excessive, we’re not talking about a huge number of resources.

  3. Understand what you mean Ben. However, the cost is not so apparent. Increasing patrols also means taking away human resources from other public and private sectors. Policing idoes not add real value to our society. It should be sufficient to enforce order but not beyond that. There is a need to step up slightly but it shouldn’t be overdone in my opinion.

    Increasing the fines would have a similar effect in modifying behavior. And it is modifying behavior that we are after.

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