By Chong Chee Kin
MOTORISTS here, especially truck drivers, spend two hours on average waiting in line to clear the checkpoints in Woodlands during peak hours. The wait for cars is shorter - just an hour - while motorcyclists can wait up to 90 minutes.
Along the United States-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas, the waiting time for trucks to clear Customs is three hours. In the European Union, where border crossing is no longer a major issue because of the single European market, the maximum waiting time is 40 minutes.
In Africa and Central America, the wait time can be far longer. In Costa Rica, for example, it can be more than 20 hours, and in Cameroon two to five days.
Around the world, traffic congestion at border checkpoints is a perennial problem and Singapore is no different. The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) has introduced a host of measures to reduce congestion during peak hours.
In its latest move, the ICA will introduce a new clearance zone by reopening long-defunct lanes at the old Woodlands Checkpoint for motorcycles during peak hours. But how long more can it continue to do this, given the limited land available for expansion?
Perhaps the authorities here could take a leaf from the US authorities' book. To deal with the increasing volume of traffic across its borders with Canada and Mexico, the US came up with an initiative - Free and Secure Trade - which slashed waiting times for selected cargo trucks from hours to mere minutes.
The voluntary programme, launched in 2002 a year after the Sept 11 attacks, requires importers, exporters and transport companies to undergo a rigorous pre-clearance security review and assessment. Among other things, they must have a clean record and must not have been involved in smuggling contraband items. The companies must let the authorities scrutinise their books to ensure that there are no suspicious transactions. They must allow themselves to be subjected to audits by the authorities.
Once the companies are identified by the authorities as posing little risk, their cargo - and the trucks carrying the goods - can be cleared quickly. The greater speed translates into reduced costs.
In Europe, a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report this year credits the creation of a single European market as key to removing most of the problems related to congestion at border crossings. Cargo vehicles between EU countries need not go through clearance checks.
Can such a system, spanning multiple jurisdictions, work in the region? Chances are, there will be too many difficulties and obstacles to cross - the most obvious one being the adoption of a common standard of security checks and requirements.
Woodlands Checkpoint is stretched only during peak hours in the day and in the evening. Technology - the use of biometric and automated clearance machines - can slash clearance and processing times, but there is nothing anyone can do if travellers fumble to look for their passports or do not have them ready at the counters.
Trivial as it sounds, such minor delays can have an impact down the queue. For example, a counter takes about a minute or less to process documents. If every other person in the queue takes a minute to locate his passport before producing it, the person at the end of a 20-person line would have been waiting for nearly 30 minutes.
Stationing more officers may help speed things up - but what do you do with them during the off-peak hours?
The Tuas Checkpoint was created as an alternative route into and out of Malaysia, but because of its higher tolls, it has yet to gain popularity with travellers.
According to the police, a monthly average of only 1.6 million travellers and 0.8 million vehicles passed through the Tuas Checkpoint in 2006. Woodlands saw about four times as much traffic during the same period - 7.1 million people and 2.9 million vehicles.
One way to tackle this problem would be to adopt the US approach: have dedicated lanes for companies from low-risk industries which have already been pre-screened by the authorities.
But would pre-clearance work, given security concerns? It should.
Already, trucks ferrying perishable goods are given priority in truck lanes for expedited clearance. This practice can be expanded to include a wider range of goods, with the authorities on both sides of the Causeway coming to an agreement on a list.
Enough research has been done on the economic impact of delays at border checkpoints around the world. We should act now.
Motorists welcome old checkpoint
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 30, 2008.
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