Review 'no minimum age' rule for private-hire drivers

A fatal accident involving a young Uber driver at the weekend has once again thrown the spotlight on the ballooning private-hire car industry and its seemingly low barriers to entry.

The 22-year-old driver had apparently lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a tree early on Sunday morning. His passenger, who was flung out of the car, was killed.

This incident took place less than a year after another passenger of an Uber car was killed in an accident here last September. The driver was 23. The Straits Times understands there was at least one other fatal accident involving a private-hire car driven by a young motorist in the last two years.

These incidents raise questions about regulations governing private-hire drivers. There is no minimum age for such drivers here - the law merely stipulates that they have to have had a valid driving licence for two years.

This is in stark contrast to the minimum age of 30 that the taxi industry has to adhere to. One of the main reasons for this age barrier - introduced decades ago when the authorities started regulating the industry - was safety. Older drivers were deemed less reckless.

The thinking, however, is different for private-hire drivers. In January, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Zainal Sapari asked if the Government would consider a minimum age of 27 for private-hire drivers "based on accident-age risk assessment of drivers".

 

Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan said there was no need. "Our view is that requiring private-hire car drivers to have a minimum driving experience of two years should be adequate to reasonably ensure passenger safety.

"In fact, where safety is concerned, the number of years of driving experience may be more important than age. An older person who has just got his driving licence might be less confident behind the wheel, compared to a younger person, say 25 years old, who has been driving for a few years."

It is unclear why a stand different from that for taxi drivers exists for private-hire drivers, but it may have to do with the Government's view that it should not have too many rules for the private-hire car sector, lest they stifle innovation. By and large, it is not a wholly unreasonable stand. But where public safety is concerned, closer scrutiny - and if necessary, a review - is warranted.

Motor insurers know the higher risks associated with younger drivers too well. They account for this by applying higher premiums in the form of loading. NTUC Income, for instance, charges up to 78 per cent more for such drivers.

Empirical data, however, is not easily available here to support or refute the insurers' longstanding policy. The Traffic Police do not see any discernible trend in serious or fatal accident statistics pertaining to a motorist's age.

But jurisdictions elsewhere do. The Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, a Chicago-based global body to promote road safety, has found that young drivers have a "very high crash risk".

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has found that teen drivers are three times more at risk than those 20 or older.

Should the authorities here do a quantitative study to ascertain if the trend is similar here?

One might argue that the passenger who was killed in last September's Uber accident was not belted up. And that the one who was flung out and killed last Sunday might not have belted up either. While that is true, it is besides the point. Because if you were to extend that logic, you would say that we should not have roadside trees, since it was a tree that the young Uber driver crashed into.

Clearly, the primary factor for passenger safety must be the competence and attitude of the driver. And if the authorities feel drivers 30 or older better fit the bill in this respect for taxis, they cannot in good conscience feel differently about folks driving private-hire cars.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'Review 'no minimum age' rule for private-hire drivers'. Print Edition | Subscribe