Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Does Increasing Traffic Fines Make Sense?

So, the geniuses up there have concocted another brilliant plan to "reduce traffic accidents". Anyone with common sense can see so many things that can go wrong with increasing the traffic fines to RM2,000.

1. Unpaid summons

As of March 2011, there were still 17 million traffic summons left unpaid. What makes the government think that people will pay up if the traffic summons were increased? Aren't they just going to offer discounts all over again?

2. More incentive for bribery

At a fine of RM300, most people would pay about RM50 in "duit kopi (coffee money)" to avoid being fined according to anecdotal evidence. Assuming the proportions are unchanged, the police would now be able to "extort" about RM300 (slightly less than a sixth of RM2,000) in bribes. Otherwise, traffic offenders would risk being fined RM2,000.

2a. Bribery redux

A suggestion made by one of my friends was to legalize duit kopi for traffic offences so that the police will work harder to apprehend traffic offenders. My first impression is that this would not work simply because the police would start working "too hard" in apprehending traffic offenders. How can working too hard be a bad thing? Well, for the simple reason that all police officers will start wanting to become traffic police. Since being a traffic police would turn into a more lucrative profession because they are now allowed to openly collect duit kopi. Who would want the dangerous task of chasing after robbers and murderers when one can easily stop a traffic offender and collect free rent? This would be an epic fail.

I don't want to be accused of just being a whiner without proposing any solutions to the problem. But herein lies the BIG question. What is the real problem? Why do people commit traffic offences? I can see two main reasons. 

First, driver's education. On the surface, the technical driving skills are relatively easy to master. Most people would have no trouble learning how to drive and park, granted there are several exceptions. But the real education is in driving temperament. Queue-cutting, lane-changing without signalling, driving on emergency lanes, tail-gating are all rampant in Malaysia. Why are people in such a rush in Malaysia? Rather, why are people so impatient to get to their destination? Will five to ten minutes delay make so much difference that it is worth risking your own and other people's lives? We always tend to believe that it will never be us when it comes to accidents, until it actually is. Let's just say that the chance of being in a serious accident is 1/1,000 for a reckless driver. On the surface, that seems like a fairly small percentage. But if you think about it, if you drive on a daily basis, you are very likely to encounter at least ONE serious accident in three years. Over a driving lifespan of 30 years (assuming you survive that long), you would have encountered at least TEN serious accidents. Do you really think you can survive?

They make us sit through one whole day of "undang" but none of this is ever mentioned. Yes, I paid attention. The Ministry seriously needs to take a look at driver's education.

Secondly, overcrowded-ness. This is a long-standing problem in Malaysia. It is simple mathematics. The more cars you have on the road, the more likely it is for accidents to happen. The problem of too many cars arise from other issues such as poor public transport, subsidized petrol, and the "Malaysia Boleh" spirit in the form of Proton. I could probably write a short book if I delve into that, but I shall refrain today.

So what are the solutions? As the first problem suggests, we seriously need to reform driver's education. While the statistics are not meant to scare, it is useful to raise awareness on the actual risks that driver's are taking compared with the minuscule benefits that they stand to gain by driving recklessly. Of course, there are many other issues that must be addressed to train a driver's temperament and this cannot be tackled without proper study.

Now, assuming that the driver's education have been reformed, the penalty for repeating traffic offenders would be to go through the new driver's education system. While we are punishing traffic offenders, might as well ensure that we educate them appropriately so that they do not repeat their offences.

Also, if we are working on increasing the fines, I propose fines that are proportionate to a person's income/wealth. Switzerland practices this. In 2010, a Swedish millionaire was fined USD1 million for driving at 290 km/h, which was 170 km/h above the limit. This should be a serious deterrent for those who are driving fast cars and attempt to tail-gate everyone along the highway.

Of course, finally, all rules are only useful if they are properly enforced. All the proposals above do not work if the police officers do not stop taking bribes. This has to be tackled on the police force's end. The recruitment has to be improved. Malaysia needs to recruit police officers that are competent and reward them accordingly. Ridiculously harsh public qualifying exams need to be implemented and those that have passed the exam will be allowed a significant pay increment to reward their efforts accordingly. In short, meritocracy must be the word of the day, and rent-seeking must be eliminated. This is easier said than done, but admitting the rampant existence of such a problem is a first step. As long as the police force continues to live in denial of their incompetency, there is no hope for change.