SINGAPORE: Could too many restrictions discourage the adoption of alternative modes of transportation and slow our progress towards a car-lite nation?
When it was announced earlier this month that all motorised personal mobility devices (PMDs) must meet fire safety standards by 2021 to ensure public safety, a number of PMD users and retailers were clearly displeased.
It’s completely understandable.
If you had just purchased one of these devices and planned to use it for several years, finding out that it does not meet new standards and will be deemed illegal soon, is disappointing to say the least.
ARE THE RULES WARRANTED?
But this rule was introduced for a reason.
There have been 80 fire incidents involving motorised PMDs since 2016 and data released by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) earlier this year showed that e-scooters were involved in 40 fires last year, an increase of nearly 350 per cent from nine such cases in 2016.
However, naturally retailers have also taken issue with the new fire safety standard – UL2272.
Mr Victor Lee, general manager of Falcon PEV, one of the leading distributors of PMDs in Singapore told Channel NewsAsia that having a blanket rule and insisting that all e-scooters conform to UL2272 is flawed.
He questioned its relevance since it is a technical standard developed by an independent US certification company, suggesting that the authorities instead impose an international safety standard approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission.
While he may be right, the fact remains that safety standards are vital.
According to the Ministry of Transport, the devices sold in Singapore today do not conform to any reliable safety standard.
Even if the authorities were to implement an international standard instead of a US one, the industry would have had to undergo a change.
Other retailers have said that they’re seeing a decline in sales due to various other regulations that have been introduced including mandatory registration for e-scooters, speed limits and measures against illegal modifications.
But let’s again consider why these were introduced.
From January to September 2017, there were about 110 accidents involving PMDs. Of these, 30 involved pedestrians on footpaths and walkways. Accidents involving such devices can be serious.
For instance, in 2016, a 19-year-old electric scooter rider collided into a pedestrian, leaving her with brain injuries and in a coma.
In light of this, one could argue that the new rules and regulations are warranted to ensure better behaviour and accountability among users.
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BUT LET’S NOT GO TOO FAR
Those who argue that too many restrictions could discourage the adoption of alternative modes of transportation are not wrong.
But even active mobility advocates in the community often express ambivalence when legislation is introduced.
For instance, when it was announced that from early next year, the speed limit for PMDs and bicycles travelling on footpaths will be reduced to 10kmh from the current 15kmh, many said the lower speed limit would be difficult to comply with and might lead to many giving up using such devices.
However, they also conceded that the speed limits would make footpaths safer for all users.
Singapore is not alone in implementing rules for alternative transportation modes. Cities in the US and countries in Europe do so as well.
For instance, in Spain, those riding in pedestrian areas have to keep within a speed limit of 10kmh and 30kmh on bike tracks and trails.
The US city of Seattle is exploring a 15mph speed limit for e-bikes on bike trails.
However, there needs to be a balance when it comes to rules and this is something that the Ministry of Transport seems to acknowledge as well.
For instance, in 2016, then-Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said that the Active Mobility Advisory Panel was of the view that “registration and compulsory insurance would be too onerous and costly for the vast majority of cyclists and personal mobility device users who behave responsibly and safely”.
At the time, it was announced that only power-assisted bicycles, which “travel on roads and are more prone to modification” should be registered.
It was only this year that it was announced e-scooters would need to be registered too.
The Government seems to be taking a progressive approach to this. Much of it seems to be informed by feedback and statistics.
TOWARDS RESPONSIBLE BEHAVIOUR AND COMMON SENSE
While rules and regulations indeed should not go overboard, they certainly should be in place to ensure that only the right people – those who realise the responsibility associated with using such devices – continue to use them.
Ms Teo also pointed out that in many cases, “safety is also about practising common sense, for example, by moving in a single file when the path is narrow, slowing down in crowded areas, and not switching between footpaths and roads suddenly”.
The failure of many users to exercise this sense has in fact led to calls from some quarters to ban such devices altogether especially along narrow footpaths.
Some might argue this is the best solution to our current woes.
In the meantime, while pedestrians, cyclists and PMD users attempt to co-exist and until the majority of users develop common sense and a sense of responsibility and accountability, the rules, enforcement and penalties will be instrumental in shaping behaviour.
We may see declining sales as prices of such devices increase due to fire safety standards compliance, or fewer people using them as a result of speed limits and other restrictions, but it is certainly better than having large numbers of unruly, reckless users and unsafe devices on footpaths and roads.
If this means a deceleration of our progress towards a car-lite nation, so be it.
Bharati Jagdish is the host of Channel NewsAsia Digital News' hard-hitting On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.