Commentary: Road safety and the case for regulating
private-hire car operators 1

SINGAPORE: The conversation on whether we should have more regulation or less over a sector is always an interesting debate. Consumers generally want some level of protection, but businesses are wary of too much regulation stifling innovation and growth.

However, the recently passed Point-to-Point (P2P) Passenger Transport Industry Bill that will take affect from June 2020 is long overdue.

What started out as just a ride-sharing app, private-hire car companies have pretty much taken up many aspects of our daily lives from commuting, eating, shopping, and even banking.

READ: Driving a Grab full-time right after graduation. Should you do it? A commentary

A MUCH NEEDED CORRECTION

I do not own a car, so I use a lot of private hire cars and taxis to get me quickly to meetings. I remembered when Uber exited the Singapore market, the prices of Grab rides went up almost immediately.

Long gone were regular discount vouchers. Drivers complained that they didn’t get the same payout incentives anymore.

One might argue that this merely reflected the correction that the market needed after a brutal price war between the two dominant players.

Though this argument is valid to certain extent, it also shows that we need competitors to keep prices affordable and that we need to encourage new players to come in to the market.

GO-JEK’S ARRIVAL

The arrival of Go-Jek – the US$10 billion behemoth from Indonesia – to the Singapore market was received with a lot of fanfare. Drivers signed on with Go-Jek and commuters noticed that Go-Jek was significantly cheaper during its launch.

A Go-Jek logo is pictured in their office in Singapore

A Go-Jek logo is pictured in their office in Singapore November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anshuman Daga/Files

However, customers also quickly realised that the waiting time for a Go-Jek car was also significantly longer than that of Grab, though it was subsequently resolved as it scaled.

Today, many go back and forth between the two apps. I often see drivers have two phones running Grab and Go-Jek apps, maximising their earning potential.

READ: Go-Jek and Grab’s two competing visions are knocking heads in Asia, a commentary

All of this is great news for Singapore. Competition in general encourages companies to increase customer service and experience. Recently Grab announced that it would spend US$2 billion in Indonesia alone to go head-to-head with Go-Jek in its home turf.

FOCUS ON ROAD SAFETY

But here lies a potential issue if our regulators and policy makers did not step in to license, monitor and regulate the sector accordingly. Companies might in their quest for profit and market expansion neglect the safety of drivers and passengers.

I have heard stories of private-hire car drivers who chase after the minimum number of rides needed in order to receive the maximum payout incentive and how private-hire car companies are on a hiring spree to increase the number of drivers on the road.

Both strategies, if not managed carefully, could pose risks to customers because they could lead to more tired and inexperienced drivers plying our roads.

Several months ago, my private-hire driver almost got us into accident a couple of times because he was glued to his navigation app, unable to figure out which roads to take due to unfamiliarity with the route.

LISTEN: The Pulse: Impatient drivers and other threats on the road

A Grab taxi drives on a street in Hanoi

A Grab taxi drives on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam on Oct 29, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Kham)

It is one thing to know how to drive yourself from point A to point B, it is another thing to drive for a living and at that, driving passengers of all ages to many parts of the city – all day every day.

Before I got off the car, I advised him to reconsider driving a private-hire car for the safety of others. I filed a complaint to the car company and was told that they would monitor the driver, but got no other updates on the follow-ups.

There was no way for me to know whether any remedial action had been taken and whether there were other complaints on the same driver from other passengers.

READ: Three stories show Uber’s IPO rests on overworked drivers and a lot of waiting, a commentary

Another thing that I pay close attention to whenever I take a private-hire car  late at night or very early in the morning is whether my driver is sleepy. I have come across a few drivers who have closed their eyes and swerved between lanes.

I usually keep my drivers alert by making small talks and asking about their day. These instances did not, fortunately, lead to accidents, but shall we wait until they did before we do something?

HOW TO PREVENT ACCIDENTS

All of this can actually be prevented by private hire-car companies. Private-hire car companies like Grab are putting in place telematics to collect data on trips, so they know better than anyone how many hours their drivers have been on the road. They know better than anyone how many safety complaints a driver has received.

They also know better than anyone the driving conditions their drivers face on the roads – because if they wanted to, they could keep track of this via their app, and design interventions to ensure road safety. For instance, a reckless driver should trigger an alert to the app.

A broader conversation should also take place on how we handle unsafe drivers – how many complaints does it take for a driver to be suspended or put on notice? Who would supervise these drivers?

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It wasn’t that long ago that a recent fatal incident that left one teen dead and three seriously injured involved a taxi driver who had committed a series of serious traffic offences but was still allowed to drive.

Grab offers a host of services, including food delivery and bill payments

Grab offers a host of services, including food delivery and bill payments. (Photo: AFP/ROSLAN RAHMAN)

As a public, we need to know how companies handle security measures.

Let me be clear, these unfortunate situations represent only a tiny fraction of my experience using private hire cars and taxis. Grab has released statistics on its safety record and its report claimed a Grab trip is as safe as any you would take on a Singapore taxi.

But there’s always room for improvement when it comes to road safety as Singapore becomes more dense and congested.

IMPROVING SAFETY IS A KEY PRIORITY

Overall, the availability of these cars is good for many commuters in Singapore. I also like that the new (P2P) Passenger Transport Industry Bill doesn’t stifle innovation by only applying the rule to those companies with more than 800 drivers, allowing new startups to launch without much hurdle.

This allows them to compete with the giants of the private-hire car sector and for those that have a new, innovative business model to scale.

Regulating the private hire car sector is timely. This would help make sure that companies do not sacrifice the general safety and comfort of the consumers and public for profits.

But more can be done when it comes to road safety, not least the release of data and measures to ensure drivers are fit for duty so that commuters have better peace of mind. 

Jonathan Chang is an active advisor, mentor, and investor in startups. He consults governments and philanthropists on innovation and entrepreneurship projects and is Social Entrepreneurship Fellow at raiSE (Centre for Social Enterprise).