Friday 25 May 2012

Ferrari or Toyota, it's the driver that matters

By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 24 May 2012

THE horrific Ferrari-taxi crash that happened two weeks ago has ignited public resentment and outrage, for obvious reasons. The party deemed at fault was driving an expensive, fast car and the victims included a cabby and his fare.

But linking the incident and its tragic consequences to a rising popularity of high-powered cars would be akin to holding gravity responsible in the cases of maids falling from high-rise buildings.

Let's be clear: The issue at hand is not one of the machine per se, but the person behind the wheel. A car need not be a 670-horsepower limited edition Italian racer to create mayhem on the road. Even the most modestly endowed vehicle can kill, given the wrong circumstances.

In the case of the Ferrari 599 GTO that slammed into the Hyundai Sonata taxi two Saturdays ago, the Ferrari was reported to be speeding and had breached a red light.

Based on video evidence captured by a camera mounted on another cab that was in the vicinity, vehicles that had the right of way then had already started crossing the major junction.

Which means that the lights in the direction of the Ferrari had turned red for at least four seconds (two seconds when lights in both directions are red, plus two seconds it usually takes for drivers in front of a queue at a junction to move off).

It was not a case of someone attempting to beat the lights in the amber phase, or even when it had just gone from amber to red.

Holding on to the four seconds theory, it can be inferred that the sports car would have been at least 220m away from the junction when the lights turned red - if it had been going at 200kmh, a speed estimated by observers.

Even if it had been going that fast, the Ferrari would have had enough distance to stop if the driver had applied the brakes when the lights turned red.

But for some reason, he did not. In fact, the video - grainy and laggy as it was - showed that the Ferrari's brake lights were not lit at the point of impact.

So, the question on some minds would be: Had he been driving a less powerful car, would the accident have happened, or would it have been so severe?

It is a big 'if'. But let us assume nothing else changes besides the car. Let us assume the car was a far more modest model, like a Volkswagen Passat.

The Passat 1.8 peaks at 220kmh. Given the relatively light traffic in the wee hours of the morning, it might have been possible for a Passat to attain 150kmh between junctions.

Now, 150kmh would still have been devastating for the cab and its occupants. Even a Toyota Corolla would have been able to exceed 100kmh quite easily under the same circumstances, driven by the same driver.

Again, 100kmh would also have caused very severe damage, bearing in mind that most cars are not engineered to withstand high-speed impacts.

In the European New Car Assessment Programme - the gold standard for safety - head-on crash tests are done at 64kmh and side-impact tests are conducted at 50kmh.

In the case of the Ferrari crash, the one fact we should not lose sight of is that the driver had ample opportunity to obey the traffic lights but for some reason did not. According to Traffic Police, the top traffic infringement here is beating the red light. And the offence is not peculiar to any make or model.

Some people argue that sports cars are capable of far higher speeds than 'normal' cars, and are also more difficult to drive. Thus, there should be a tiered licensing scheme for cars - similar to the three-tier scheme for motorbikes. It is fairly easy to make such suggestions, but much harder to measure the effectiveness of such a system, and the practicality of administering it.

Fact is, the rationale for a tiered system for bikes is stronger because bigger machines are heavier and more unwieldy. The degree of difficulty between riding a 125cc motorcycle and a 750cc one is far larger than between driving cars of different engine sizes.

Most sports cars today are fairly user-friendly. In fact, sports cars generally have better brakes, lighter bodies, sharper steering, and a more responsive chassis - all the things that allow them to avoid an accident better than the everyday family sedan.

As long as the driver acknowledges the limits of his own driving skills, and does not exceed them, a supercar is no less safe than a Volvo.

As for speed, here is another fact to consider: You do not need a very powerful car to exceed speed limits. On most city roads, the limit is 60kmh, and on highways, 90kmh.

Even at 30kmh, a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, for instance, would be potentially fatal.

And even if you adhere to speed limits but have poor driving practices such as drink-driving, text-driving, changing lanes without signalling or looking, and ignoring stop signs, the likelihood of your maiming or killing someone is that much higher. That is just common sense.

So it boils down to responsible behaviour. Responsible behaviour rests largely with the individual. It includes not doing all the things listed above, as well as doing the following:
- Not buying your loved one a high-powered car the day he secures a driving licence. Not because the car is unsafe, but because the driver simply does not have enough real-life experience on the road. Insurers levy much higher premiums on young drivers for a good reason. 
- Signing up for advanced or defensive driving courses, which allow you to acquaint yourself with the car you are driving, as well as manoeuvres that will help you deal with emergency situations better than the untrained driver. 
- Reporting unsafe driving habits. You may be accused of being nosey, but you could actually help prevent accidents.
For people who simply do not give two hoots about their own safety or the safety of others, what we need is stronger enforcement. A review of the penalty framework may be necessary, as Singapore's population continues to grow, and as more people share our limited road space.

And to boost enforcement, perhaps it is timely to review the salaries of traffic cops, explore new technologies to nab reckless drivers, or deputise ordinary motorists so that they can help in keeping our roads safe. Perhaps all of the above. The long-aborted plan to merge the Traffic Police with the Land Transport Authority to bolster enforcement capabilities can also be relooked.

As for the issue of newcomers who are unfamiliar with our roads, I ask this question: How familiar do you have to be to recognise a red light?

So, the way to tackle the problem of cars killing people would be a tougher enforcement regime and a process to instil responsible behaviour, a process that starts from the crib.

Anything else would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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