Using any mobile device in hand while driving to be illegal

Driving while holding and using any type of mobile device, including small tablets, will be illegal from next February.

Currently, only calling or texting someone on a cellphone is barred. But when the changes to the Road Traffic Act, which were passed into law yesterday, come into effect, everything from checking e-mail to playing games on these devices will be an offence.

This comes amid a 20 per cent rise in the past two years in the number of summonses for using a mobile phone while driving - from 2,938 in 2012 to 3,572 last year. Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said the amendments were necessary, given the proliferation of the types of mobile devices and their applications.

Several MPs, however, wondered if the enhanced laws go far enough, citing overseas studies and the laws of other countries.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said: "Researchers have found that drivers tend to be overconfident, and underestimate the risk of inattentive driving, particularly while using mobile devices, whether they are being held or mounted."

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair also said the new rules "allow drivers to play a game, text or surf the Internet by tapping on the screen of a device placed on a holder". He added that drivers can still use the devices when the vehicle is not moving, calling it an unsatisfactory situation. He pointed out that in Britain, use of mobile devices is banned until the car is parked.

The same point was raised by Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who said Australia bans the use of mobile devices while a vehicle stops at a traffic junction.

Non-constituency MP Gerald Giam, meanwhile, suggested that emerging technologies such as smartwatches and the Google Glass, a head-mounted device which allows users to watch videos and surf the Web, will slip through the net.

But Mr Masagos said the use of such devices may yet fall foul of the offence of inconsiderate driving, which carries up to a $1,000 fine and a six-month jail term.

"We will continue to monitor the situation... and study the practices of other jurisdictions as they evolve to deal with (new) types of smart devices," he added, calling the amendments a "measured" approach to the problem.

Three MPs - Mr Zainal, Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC) - compared using the mobile phone while driving to driving under the influence of alcohol.

Ms Tin and Mr Gan also called for penalties stiffer than the current $200 fine and 12 demerit points. Those convicted in court also face up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail; repeat offenders face up to double the penalty.

Mr Masagos replied that the current penalties are "sufficient".

Singapore Safety Driving Centre manager Gerard Pereira said the changes are a step in the right direction. But catching a motorist red-handed would remain a challenge, he added. "But given the possibility of being caught for inconsiderate driving, hopefully drivers will think twice."

waltsim@sph.com.sg