Tonga’s seatbelt laws were “a joke”, veteran journalist Kalafi Moala said today.
Moala made the remarks after Ha’apai MP Veivosa Taka submitted a private members’ bill to reduce seat belt fines from TP$500 to TP$200.
In February we reported that Chief Magistrate Folau Lokotui told Attorney General Linda Folaumoetu’i he had no discretion to impose fines lower than $500 for traffic violations.
This contradicted an earlier official statement that courts would decide the exact amount of money for them to pay after considerations of their circumstances and defences.
A new traffic law introduced by disgraced former Minster of Transport ‘Akosita Lavulavu included the compulsory wearing of seatbelts, made the use of mobile phones while driving illegal and mandated that cars cannot be used without a registration plate.
Moala said the current traffic law was unjust and lacked common sense.
Children must also be seated when a vehicle is in motion, and they can no longer sit on the driver’s lap.
The law had been widely criticised by the public from the outset both in the local news and social media.
Some believed the seatbelts law did not consider the fact that pick up trucks had been used to transport people in Tonga for a long time. They claimed that these vehicles appeared to have rarely been involved in road accidents.
There have also been complaints that the emphasis of the laws has been misplaced. Some have argued that too much emphasis has been placed on seat belts when it should have been on speed and drink driving, which is regarded as the main cause of death on the road.
Late last year photos of vehicles in Ha’apai shared on social media showed pick up vans full of people standing in the back while the vans were moving.
Moala said the strict enforcement of seat belt laws, for those in the front seats of a vehicle, did not apply to those riding in the back seats.
“This law further becomes a joke when there are no regulations that forbid riding an open truck,” the veteran journalist said.
“I have seen every day driving into town, pick-up trucks in which the driver and front seat passenger wear seat belts, and yet those riding at the back of the truck, not only have no seat belts but are standing and partly hanging out of the truck.
“They would be killed or seriously wounded in an accident. It is horrific to see this scene daily in Nuku’alofa, with children as many as eight to 10 standing up in the back of a truck, while the driver and front seat passenger are secured with seat belts. How can we penalize those who don’t wear seat belts in the front seats of a vehicle, while we have no regulations for all other passengers, even at the back of a pick-up truck?”
As we reported in a commentary in February, an alternative to heavy fines is for Tongan courts to adapt a New Zealand practice of using community laws to impose non-financial and non-custodial sentences on people convicted of certain offences, including some traffic violations.
These sentences can include community work and being confined to home.