Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A timely wake-up call

The Star Online - 19 August 2007


One man shares how a drivers’ rehabilitation course changed his perception of safe driving.

I NEARLY lost my driving licence four years ago. It was during a brief period when the Government strictly enforced the Kejara demerit points system against constant and repeat traffic offenders.

You see, I’d collected more than 20 traffic summonses in that year. Most of them were for speeding. I travelled frequently around the country those days as part of my job as a foreign correspondent here and, well, I liked driving fast.

And if you knew how to handle yourself, getting caught at speed traps was not a problem. A quick chat and a rap on the knuckle later and you’d be on your way.

But one day, I decided to finally have some principles in life. I collected all my summonses and paid them all. After the nice people at the police traffic division gave me a discount, I was still poorer by nearly RM2,000.

But nevertheless, I thought, that was that. I’d paid my fines.

So imagine my shock when I subsequently received a letter from the Transport Ministry. With disbelief, I read that they would be “taking away my licence because I had exceeded the number of Kejara points allowed per driver for each calendar year”.

You can look up for yourself the number of points allocated for each traffic offence, but suffice to say, two speeding tickets within a year result in an immediate suspension of one’s driving licence.

Yes, Malaysia has among the toughest driving laws in the world! So my more than 20 tickets should have resulted in the Government taking away my licence. Forever. It did not.

After a grovelling appeal letter from me, the ministry offered me a lifeline: I’d have to attend a drivers’ rehabilitation course, at my own expense, and the Government would allow me to keep my licence.

I attended the course, which was held over a weekend at a driving school near Banting. There we were: a motley crew of about 20 that included a pregnant housewife, a vegetable seller, some businessmen, a few government clerks, and a journalist.

There were yawns, mutterings of “I don’t know what I’m doing here because I know all these stuff already,” as the instructor taught us the theory of defensive driving on our first day.

But did we? I looked around in disbelief at these fellow mature adult Malaysians, because I saw on many of their faces puzzled looks.

During the many coffee and food breaks, I discovered why many of them were puzzled. They actually joked about how ridiculous defensive driving was to them.

Defensive driving struck many of my course-mates as a joke. The idea that we should anticipate other drivers and, God forbid, pedestrians, was beyond them.

But despite how boring it was, the instructors’ hammering-over-the-head style of driving home the point of safe defensive driving techniques (like looking at the rear view mirror and side mirror once every one or two minutes), began to work.

As we wound up day one of the course, many of us were actually getting it.

You can joke about it, but turning on indicators, for example, is done for a reason; before the course, the rationale for it was lost on most of my course-mates. More than half the class actually confessed to never ever using their indicators.

“If I used my indicators to change lanes, then the other drivers will never give way,” one man said. “I am too lazy to use indicators. If I am slowing down, it should be obvious I am going to turn,” said another.

It is amazing how you look at yourself. In my mind I was a great driver. After all, I could control a performance car at around 200kph on a racetrack. I must be good.

But during the class conversation on the use of indicators, I remembered with private embarrassment an incident a few years ago: I had made a quick left turn without indicating, and immediately heard a low muffled sound coming from the left rear window of my car.

I looked in horror at the sight of a young man still somehow astride his bicycle, holding on to my car after I had sideswiped him. I stopped the car immediately, made sure he was okay, gave him a few bucks, and off I went doing my best to forget the whole thing.

Until our course discussion.

So at the end of day one of motoring camp, it began to sink in for most of us that we were all there for a reason. If we were really the good drivers we thought we were, we would not have been there.

We were bad drivers.

By the second day, some of us even began enjoying ourselves and did something we were initially deadset against doing. We actually learned some good driving habits.

Most of the day was spent taking cars out for evaluation drives.

Like us, our instructors also learned. They learned that most Malaysians liked to steer with just one hand most of the time. They learned that most Malaysians do not bother observing important things like children playing by the side of the road. And, oh yes, they learned that some of us still insisted on speeding.

Later, we all tried our hand at braking tests and high-speed evasion manoeuvres.

At the end of the day, we were given our certificates. We were also told that we were on probation. If I received one traffic ticket within the next 12 months, I would lose my licence.

I cannot say today that I am the best driver in the world. But what I can say is that the Kejara system and the subsequent drivers’ rehab made me a better driver.

By better, I mean mature. I mean that I now rarely speed. Well, I try not to anyway. I am actually afraid of getting caught.

Oh, it is not that I have not received a speeding ticket since. God knows some roads have the strangest speed limits.

I actually think we do not need to amend any of our laws to prevent tragedies such as the bus accident that claimed 20 lives last week. Our existing laws and regulations are more than adequate. We just do not have any enforcement.

Enforcement works. A case in point is the short stretch of road near the National Science Centre leading to Sri Hartamas in Kuala Lumpur. The speed limit there is 80kph. And there are speed traps there about four or five times a month.

Regular users of that road like me always slow our cars down to within the legislated limit, and it gives me great joy to see those who flout the law getting flagged down by the cops. Nowadays, I’d say more than 90% of drivers on that road obey the law – all because of enforcement.

In case you are wondering, the authorities stopped the strict enforcement of the Kejara system soon after I finished my course.

If it were strictly enforced, at least 200,000 drivers, if not more, would have lost their driving licence. Public pressure resulted in the Kejara system being put in cold storage.

Considering how Malaysians drive, I say that it is a pity that all these errant drivers have not been taken off the road.

And it is a pity that the driver of the bus in last week’s accident, with his outstanding summonses, would still be on the road today if he had stayed awake and nothing untoward had happened.

I wonder how many ticking time bombs like him are on Malaysian roads today, just waiting to kill someone?

Leslie Lau is a former journalist with The Star and the Singapore Straits Times. He is now a public relations consultant, and a slower driver.

1 comment:

charmsterk said...

WOw this is an inspiring entry. If only other drivers would think maturely as how Leslie did after the rehab course.