Modified vehicle owners feel ‘victimised’

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Authorities are proposing stiffer penalties for illegal vehicle modifications in Singapore after media reports in the past few months claimed a rise in such alterations.

The move has reinforced the 'Ah Beng' bad boy racer image of modified car owners, raising feelings of injustice in the community. A Facebook page called "Stop Criminalising Car Enthusiasts" has been set up and has over 1,000 members to date.

Started in August on the same date as one of the media reports, a moderator of the page, KK, said, "We started the page because we felt that we're unfairly judged and slammed by mainstream media who had very little or no knowledge of the community. We are tired of being the convenient scapegoats."

Misconception?

Car modification is a general term used to describe the improvements made to the performance or appearance of a car. Like how people decorate their houses, some drivers treat cars as an extension of personalities and spend time building their car in appreciation of its engineering, not because they want to race on the streets like that of Hollywood movies.

"People tend to assume that modified cars mean 'Ah Beng' drivers who speed and zig zag through traffic recklessly. The thing is, these reckless drivers can be drivers of supercars, luxury cars, vans, lorries or buses. The drivers control these vehicles," Ben Wong, editor of local automotive website The Right Wrong, who drives a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX, noted.

"If modifying a car's performance means you are going to drive more recklessly because of more power, then what about the people who pay almost a million dollars buying a performance car straight from the factory. Are those people going to be driving recklessly too because they have more power?" he pointed out.

In a report earlier this week, figures from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) show that the average number of illegal modification cases per month has increased to 920 for this year, compared to 611 last year and 146 in 2008.

According to this report, LTA did admit that they stepped up their enforcement, hence the spike in cases.

Many reasons have led to this alleged rise in illegal vehicle modifications, but it may not have been because there are more drivers engaging in the scene.

Jackson Toh, editor of local car magazine Wheels Asia and who drives a Subaru Impreza WRX said, "I highly doubt there is a rise. Instead the reason can be attributed to LTA officers being increasingly active on our roads. A few of my close buddies who have rather flashy cars have been fined more than three times within a month each. Hence, catching the same number of people repeatedly does not equate to a rise in illegal car modifications."

Wong explained, "Simple analogy, if you use a bigger net, you're bound to catch more fish. Of course there has been a rise."

After speaking with car workshop owners and other related automotive aftermarket businesses; there is reason to believe that there is actually an overall decrease in car owners with vehicle modifications.

Business decline

One workshop owner I spoke to said that the automotive aftermarket business has been on the decline the past few years due to the lack of new performance car models, hence the drop in interest for vehicle modifications.

For example, Honda stopped its production of the S2000, Mitsubishi ended its Lancer Evolution series after the 10th edition and only recently did the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 spring onboard in a bid to try and revive the scene.

In fact, many workshops have already ceased operations due to the drop in business and the step up in LTA enforcement duties are sending more businesses under threat and also forcing drivers to give up their passion. The lack of a race track in Singapore and the possible implementation of stricter penalties will only serve to drive the automotive aftermarket scene into the dungeons.

What surprised me was that the interviewees quoted in the reports were neither modified car owners nor anyone in the aftermarket automotive business. It was even more alarming when there was a statement from an LTA spokesperson about how an exhaust modification can affect steering and braking performance, hence compromising safety. The last I checked, that is not mechanically or technically correct.

What is illegal?

In the Singapore context, any vehicle modifications must meet the requirements of the Land Transport Authority (LTA). Without certificates of approval from the LTA, they would be deemed illegal.

For example, there are performance parts that are certified by TUV (Technischer Überwachungs-Verein, English: Technical Inspection Association), an organisation that performs tests for automobiles, and JASMA, a Japanese aftermarket part certification body, but if they are not submitted to LTA for approval for use on local roads, they are then defined illegal in the local context.

Some workshops and drivers I spoke to said it is a hassle to go through all the red tape required to get the approval from LTA, and it also involves a hefty sum of money. Hence, many end up driving on the roads without the LTA approval and hence are deemed illegal.

Illegal = Unsafe?

Because it is deemed illegal by LTA, there is the assumption that the vehicle modifications are unsafe.

How should safety of vehicle modifications be defined then?

Brendan Mok, editor of local performance car magazine 9tro said, "I define illegal car modifications as low quality botched-up jobs improperly installed on cars that pose a real threat to safety. Other wear and tear parts such as bald tyres, worn brake pads and leaking radiators should also be deemed illegal. Inappropriate mods such as snow and mud tyres also should be illegal. Extreme modifications like nitrous oxide and ball-jointed suspension bushings should go too."

Another workshop owner I spoke to who also declined to be named, said, "The issue about safety here should not be about the modification parts, but about who executes the modifications. If they are installed properly, then safety would not be compromised and in fact would be increased as these parts have been developed by big names in the industry worldwide for the vehicle to be safe. However, some might go for cheap and inferior imitation products that might cause the cars to break down."

Toh added, "Stuff such as brake kits, coilovers and strut bars actually aid in keeping the car planted at all times. It is not the modifications that compromise safety, but the driver and the mindset behind the wheel."

High performance stock cars vs. modified sports cars

In another report published in August, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh wrote to Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew and said that "such vehicles were not only noisy but could also pose a danger to other road users if modified incorrectly" and that "the authorities should do more to control "potential troublemakers".

He even asked for a consideration of the "prohibiting the sales of motor vehicle parts and accessories that may enable motorists to modify their motor vehicles to produce noise beyond prescribed or acceptable levels in Singapore."

In that same report, it was also said that modified vehicles "will be used beyond its normal operating intention" and "endangers lives".

To an average reader with no knowledge or interest in vehicles, he might be led to believe that modified vehicles are noisy, dangerous and nothing but trouble. Thus, it is this stereotype that might have caused feedback from residents to the LTA about excessive noise possibly generated by illegal exhaust modifications that causes public nuisance. While this may be the efforts of some modified vehicle owners, it can also be the result of high performance, high powered stock supercars.

"Cars do not make excessive noise on its own. It is always the driver and will always be the driver. Instead of clamping down on the modifications, action should be taken against errant motorists who rev their engines, thereby resulting in noise pollution," Calvin Wan, a certified performance tuner who drives a Volkswagen Scirocco 2.0 TSI said.

"LTA has always associated increase in exhaust noise to illegal modifications made to the exhaust system of vehicles. What about high-powered supercars and Harley Davidson motorcycles that come stock from the factory with 'loud' exhaust systems that are just as capable to making excessive noise?" Wan added.

Call for transparency

While the LTA is still reviewing the proposed changes for stiffer and harsher penalties to reduce these allegedly 'illegal' modified vehicles, some modified car owners have voiced out their opinions publicly in hope that it will reach the authorities.

The moderators of Stop Criminalising Car Enthusiasts have emailed Minister Lui and his team and are waiting to hear from him.

Having written two notes in Facebook addressed to LTA in response to the reports, Mok "urges the LTA to consult with people that have more contextual knowledge about performance cars and modifications before they make statements as such".

He added, "It is a fallacious generalisation to say that all vehicle modifications compromise safety - it's like saying anyone with a gun is a murderer. It's always not what's in the car, but how it is driven that causes accidents and compromises safety. I hope to see the LTA engage us, people in the industry that know how cars and their upgrades work. I hope to redefine the standards for a legal or illegal upgrade so that we may not give day to day like criminals, because we are not."

Wong feels that the LTA can engage "a panel of judges comprising of members of the public, VICOM engineers, enthusiasts and workshop owners to work out an approved limit, then have these approved upon inspection by VICOM engineers for proper installation".

As for Toh, he hopes that "the LTA could concentrate more efforts on motorists that really do pose a serious danger on the roads, such as tipper trucks and lorries clearly overloaded or exceeding their speed limits, instead of discriminating against modified vehicles".

Passionate about cars and motorsports, Cheryl Tay is a familiar face in prominent local, regional as well as international automotive titles. More of her at www.cheryl-tay.com.

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