SINGAPORE, July 10 — A recent suggestion by Nominated Member of Parliament Dr Walter Theseira to peg traffic fines to the open market value of an offending motorist’s vehicle has sparked a lively debate among transport analysts and motorists.
The consensus from TODAY’s sampling of opinion? Most people believe such a system would amount to a form of discrimination against the better off.
Dr Theseira made the suggestion in Parliament on Monday to improve the fine penalty system — by having motorists who own luxury cars pay larger fines for the same offence compared to those who drive cheaper vehicles.
He said that pegging a fine to the value of the car is a more practical method than pegging it to income levels.
“I think it is reasonable to assume that the driver of a large luxury car is able to pay more than one driving a cheaper vehicle, and would likely regard the demerit points and other consequences of an offence as far more serious than the value of the fine itself,” he said.
“Insofar as many luxury cars are marketed as safer than less well-equipped cars, there is even more reason to increase the optimal fine as a deterrent, since the perceived risk of injury to the driver themselves will be lower and they may be more inclined to speed.”
Dr Theseira said that his proposal was a bid to make fines more “meaningful” as a deterrent for motorists of higher income levels, while being fair and reasonable for lower-income motorists at the same time.
“Motorists differ greatly in their income and wealth. However, fines are generally equal when different motorists commit the same offence, which creates a problem. A fine that is large enough to be meaningful and appropriate to punish the average motorist may be too large for lower-income motorists and too small for the richest motorists.
“Fines don’t work if they are so large that people can’t pay, and fines also don’t work if they are not meaningful deterrents.”
He quoted a study published in the Journal of Law and Economics in 2004 which used traffic data from several countries including the United States and Israel, and found that drivers with newer cars were more likely to run red lights and were less responsive to fine increases.
He said that the findings support the theory that fines do deter unsafe driving, and “moreover, the deterrent effect of the fine depends on the income or wealth of the offender”.
“Richer offenders simply feel the pinch of a fine less,” he added.
‘Laws should not discriminate’
However, experts and motorists approached by TODAY mostly disagreed on the merits of such a penalty system, with most stating that it would be discriminatory.
Some also said that if such a system were to be allowed, it could set a dangerous precedent for other laws and penalties.
Transport consultant Gopinath Menon said that while the intention is to make the drivers “feel the pinch”, “it is not very fair” to have different penalties for the same offence.
“If you commit an offence, you should be charged the same penalty, regardless of who you are. Why should anybody be discriminated against?”
Menon added that driving an expensive car does not mean that the offender is earning a high income, or is able to afford paying a larger fine.
Dr Lee Der-Horng, transport researcher from the National University of Singapore (NUS), agreed that “nobody should be discriminated against in the eyes of the law”.
He also said that fines have been “overused” as a solution to traffic-related problems and accidents.
An understanding of the “crux and nature” of traffic accidents is more important, he added.
He pointed out that traffic accidents are related to a driver’s behaviour and many other factors such as road conditions.
“The aggressiveness, experience of a driver are factors (in) traffic accidents and offences Sometimes, the occurrence of traffic accidents and offences (is also) due to the road design, congestion, visibility, sight distance and weather.
“Traffic accidents or traffic problems are not that easily solved by fines.”
One driver, Edward Tay, said that tying fines to income or a car’s open market value “imposes an unequal penalty for the same offence”.
The 53-year-old lawyer said: “The social cost from a reckless billionaire and that from a reckless vocational driver is the same. As such, the penalty for the offence must be the same.”
Tay believes that the most “effective” penalty would be sanctions on the offending driver’s licence.
“Even a billionaire who loses his licence will not be able to drive his Lambo (Lamborghini) and I suspect there will be little joy in hiring a chauffeur to do so,” he said.
TODAY reader Francis Cheng, in giving his view on the matter, wrote in an email: “It is common to find luxurious cars in (public housing) estates, but the owners are not necessarily wealthy. Some, though not all, are asset-rich but cash-poor.
“While I agree with the premise of fairer penalties, the reality is that this will just cost everyone more money because (the offender) may challenge the penalty in court under judicial review due to discrimination.”
Cheng also felt that traffic summons “should not be proportion to wealth because fines are not a tax”. “If a judge feels that a defendant would not be deterred by a low fine, they can have the discretion to increase the fine and demerit points.”
He added that if pegging traffic fines to the value of cars is allowed, it could set a dangerous precedent.
“If we introduce fines based on the type of vehicles, why wouldn’t we apply it to any fines or punishments?”
When contacted by TODAY, Dr Theseira recognised that one issue is in enforcing “sliding scale” fines.
Citing the example of a Finnish businessman who was fined €54,024 (RM250,751) for driving at 64 miles per hour (103km/h) in a 50 miles per hour (80km/h) zone, Dr Theseira said that the Finn eventually “got the penalty reduced on appeal”.
Elaborating on this, he said that “most people, if they were convicted of a crime, would want the right to explain to the judge why their sentence should be more lenient or why the circumstances are mitigating”.
In this way, pegging fines to ability to pay is no different. “You can’t argue that the justice system should consider personal circumstances for leniency and not the other way as well,” he said.
Countries with traffic fines based on income
In Finland, speeding fines are linked to an offender’s income. Fines are calculated according to an offender’s daily disposable income. A deduction may also be granted to reflect daily living costs, and additional amounts may also be deducted for each dependant such as a non-working spouse or child.
Switzerland fines traffic offenders according to taxable income and wealth. In 2009, a court sentenced six men from Hong Kong to fines of up to 95,000 Swiss francs after they were caught racing through Switzerland in hired Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Audis at speeds of up to 142 miles an hour (228km/h). In a separate case, a Frenchman was fined 70,000 Swiss francs after being caught on a highway travelling at 151 miles an hour (243km/h). — TODAY