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Publication Date : 11-02-2013
Drivers polled admit to using phones on road to answer calls, check texts, visit Facebook
Singaporeans cannot put down their mobile phones, even when they are driving and even though it is against the law.
This is what many admit they do while on the move: make and answer calls, send and check text messages, look up online directions to their destinations.
Some squeeze a visit to social media sites like Facebook. And some play games.
When The Sunday Times polled 140 motorists last week and asked if they were guilty of using the phone while driving, most said "yes".
Why do they put themselves and others at risk despite the threat of hefty fines, a jail sentence or both? Most said: "I can't help it."
The urge to use the phone is simply too great.
Latest figures from the Traffic Police reflect a worsening phone-and-drive habit that puts everyone at risk. There were 2,934 summonses issued last year against those caught using their mobile phones while driving. This was up from the 2,817 issued in the previous year.
Road safety engineering expert Gopinath Menon says their behaviour is nothing but "dangerous, distracted driving" - a cause for worry.
"Anything that distracts you while driving is dangerous," said the adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Technological University.
Even using a hands-free kit for phone calls is not necessarily safe. "Your eyes are on the road but you're listening to something else and not giving your full attention to the road."
Last December, transport operator ComfortDelGro sacked a taxi driver who watched a video on his mobile phone while ferrying a passenger. The driver had placed the phone on his dashboard and the passenger noticed that the video had explicit sex scenes.
Last month, transport operator SMRT sacked a bus driver caught watching a movie on his tablet computer while at the wheel.
While the police do not track the number of accidents that involve drivers using their phones, Singapore Road Safety Council chairman Bernard Tay says motorists cannot afford to be complacent about the danger.
Various studies carried out overseas have highlighted the risks, which include slowing the driver's reaction time.
One, reported in The New York Times two years ago, said those who phone-and-drive were four times more at risk of crashing than those who do not.
A 2009 study carried out in the United States found that those who text while driving are six times more likely to get into an accident than those who do not.
Under the Road Traffic Act, first-time phone-and-drive offenders can be fined up to S$1,000 (US$807) or jailed for up to six months, or can face both a fine and a jail term.
Repeat offenders get up to double the penalty. But all offenders are slapped with 12 demerit points and the police will seize their mobile phones for investigations.
In Singapore, when the vehicle is in motion, it is an offence:
For the driver to hold the mobile phone with one hand - for example, pressing a button to answer a call - while the other hand holds the steering wheel; and
For the driver to communicate through that mobile phone while driving.
"Communicating includes making or taking phone calls, and reading, writing or sending messages," said a police spokesman.
The police confirmed that it is not an offence to use the phone when the vehicle is stationary, such as at a traffic light.
And while playing games or looking at Google Maps on mobile phones may not be specified under the Road Traffic Act, the spokesman said a traffic offence can still be made out against a motorist, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case.
"Activities that take your hands, eyes or attention off the steering wheel and away from the road are all forms of driver distraction," he said.
Enforcement action can also be taken against motorists who fail to maintain proper control of their vehicles or drive in a reckless or dangerous manner, he added.
Some states in the US have a complete ban on the use of mobile phones while driving, while others allow it based on the number of years of driving experience. Penalties in the US include fines and demerit points.
It is illegal across Australia to use any function of a hand-held mobile phone while driving.
This covers talking, texting and taking photos, even when the vehicle is stationary but not parked. Offenders face a fine and three demerit points.
But Menon does not think harsher penalties will lick the phone-and-drive problem because the problem is the motorists' attitudes. "People think it's okay. They think the accident won't happen to them," he said.
Indeed, many drivers The Sunday Times spoke to felt they could multi-task and reasoned that using the phone meant taking their eyes off the road for only a short time.
Said one: "I'm a good driver and the chance of getting caught seems unlikely."
Another motorist, a 26-year-old computer businessman, said he was sending a text message to his girlfriend while driving when he hit the truck in front of him.
The accident left a crack along the hood of his car.
He was not caught.
Menon said more has to be done to raise awareness of the potential dangers of using a mobile phone while driving.
He believes awareness-raising campaigns would help not only motorists but also pedestrians who use the phone while walking when they ought to look out for their safety.
He recalled a road safety message elsewhere which he felt put across the message effectively to all road users: "Kill the call, don't kill yourself."