Personal Mobility Devices: Are we ready for a norms-based society?

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Two days ago, the enhanced regulations pertaining to the use of personal mobility devices (PMDs), such as e-scooters, came into force; tougher penalties are being implemented for riders who ride on the road. While this will definitely reduce the number of accidents involving PMDs, the lack of harder regulations such as licensing or compulsory safety courses means that we may have to trust PMD riders to take the initiative and ride safely. Should we be concerned?

Let us remember that the reason why drivers remain overwhelmingly safe is largely due to the existence of a series of predictable and accepted rules. Hence, to allow the safe introduction of PMDs to our roads, we need to build and spread new norms fast enough in order to increase the predictability of PMDs and our overall safety.

Why do PMDs get into accidents on the roads?

The recent laws were meant to protect PMD riders because of the vast majority of PMD-related accidents that have occurred on the road between PMD riders and other vehicles. However, let us look beyond this law and ask the deeper question: why do PMDs get into accidents on the roads so often?

I believe that this is because PMDs are not the same as other automobiles; the difference does not lie in their speed, but the rules and norms surrounding them.

Most of us are road-users in one form or another – be it a bus, taxi, or that we drive. Despite automobiles going at a much higher speed and possessing much more lethal force than a PMD, every day, millions of Singaporeans use the roads, and get home safely. This is because road usage is governed by an established and well-understood series of rules.

When all drivers conform to a fixed set of rules, behavior on the road becomes significantly more predictable. For instance, we always overtake a car on their right, and we signal before changing lanes (well, we are supposed to). On the other hand, as pedestrians, we only cross the road at a designated crossing, and when the lights turn green. The fact that we know when and how every other road user is going to act reduces the likelihood of accidents.

The point that predictability greatly increases safety on the road is backed by research which has shown that in regions where traffic rules were frequently flouted, traffic accidents were proportionally higher. Similarly, when some cities in the UK introduced shared spaces roads, ie. roads without any traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, and pedestrians are allowed to crossed freely at any point, accidents rates in these areas went up – these projects are now banned. These shared spaces demonstrate the type of chaos that occurs when rules and norms do not exist.

It is for this same reason that bicycles and PMDs often get in to accidents on the roads – they are not bound by the same rules as cars, and some PMD riders believe that they have carte-blanche to flout these rules. As a result, they often catch drivers off-guard when sharing the road, resulting in accidents. This is why it is argued that these road users ought to subscribe to the same norms and rules of vehicular roads in order to enhance the overall safety of everyone.

This predictability is one of the single largest and most understated feature that makes our roads safe. It is not shiny new technology, but good reliable common sense. PMDs, as of today, do not possess the same degree of predictability despite being powered vehicles.

Are we ready for a norms-based society? 

In the case of PMDs, the decision by the government to only implement soft-regulations while focusing the bulk of its efforts on making sure PMDs are not used on vehicular roads means that we are effectively relegating the behavior of PMD users on pavements. Following on from the above arguments, I argue that we need to enhance the predictability of the behaviour of PMDs on pavements, and would have been rules on the roads will now have to be substituted with mere ‘norms’ on the pavements.

While rules are effective because they are set by an authority such as the government and often come with sanctions such as fines, norms are things that we all come to agree on, usually implicitly.

For instance, at a hawker centres, there are rules against littering (punishable by some hefty fines). However, there are no rules that permits the practice of chouping – but we generally recognize that a packet of tissue paper as a ‘reserved’ sign. If you took someone’s seat when they have ‘chouped’ it, you will be given dirty looks, even though nobody could point to a rule in some book to show why you were wrong. The practice and recognition of chouping is an example of a norm.

Although the government is busy expanding the existing network of cycling paths, the Minister of National Development has stated that it would not be until 2030 that all townships have a network of cycling paths. While 10 years is not a long time in infrastructural planning, it is a long time to an individual. Before that happens, there will be members of our society who are at risk – such as the elderly and the young, who have to share the pavements with powered vehicles. Such concerns were expressed by such as Mr. Daniel Lai, who said, “It used to be that I could walk safely on footpaths as a pedestrian but now, I do so in fear because any moment, I could be hit by a PMD.” This is especially pressing given that a large number of our pavements are 1.5 metres wide, while the average footprint of a PMD stands at 0.5m (not factoring in the amount of buffer required).

While the Active Mobility Act comes with a series of recommendations on the responsible use of PMDs, the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we can work to entrench these desired norms, and have a critical mass of riders subscribe to them in order for all of us to have the same benefits of predictability that we enjoy on our vehicular roads today. It is one thing for the government to list out desirable practices, but another for us to adopt it.

Another key difference between a rule and a norm is that norms have to be gradually cultivated. Take for instance, the push by many hawker centres and food courts to encourage patrons to return their own trays. More than five years in, and still not everyone does this. Just as with tray returns, can we introduce these desirable PMD norms fast enough?

Conclusion

So, “are we ready for a norms-based society?” Only time can tell. Norms play an important role in our society – from simple things such as returning our own trays, to responsible PMD usage, to parking a rental bike in a considerate manner – plenty of good can come about when people follow norms. Technological changes are putting how we live and move in this city in our own hands – and we need to make ourselves adept and gracious to create mutually beneficial norms surrounding the use of these technologies that will make our city a better place to live in.

On the other hand, should we prove unable to rise to the challenge, then perhaps it would only be fitting for the government to step in with even more regulations to protect both riders and pedestrians. When that happens, maybe we should not cry foul and blame the nanny state, because ultimately it is us who have failed to establish the healthy norms that would have benefited everyone.

(Photo credit: The New Paper)

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Author: Lee Ke Lin

I am currently pursuing my graduate studies in 19th century history! :D

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