Statistically safer than Galle Road, but a fast track to tragedy for the irresponsible and the reckless. Aanya Wipulasena reports  Fifteen months after the opening of Sri Lanka’s first toll road- the Southern Expressway (E1), motorists continue to be confused about speed limits and road rules to be followed leading to six deaths and 659 [...]


Southern Expressway a boon to motorists and State coffers


Statistically safer than Galle Road, but a fast track to tragedy for the irresponsible and the reckless. Aanya Wipulasena reports 

Fifteen months after the opening of Sri Lanka’s first toll road- the Southern Expressway (E1), motorists continue to be confused about speed limits and road rules to be followed leading to six deaths and 659 accidents to date.
E1 officials say most of these accidents could have been avoided, if the drivers had been cautious. One such accident took place last Saturday and claimed two lives (See box story).
“When using the E1, motorists should always stick to the left lane, and only use the right lane to overtake another vehicle. Though the maximum speed limit on the E1 is 100 kmph, most drivers exceed the speed limit, because the road is open and they have paid to get to Galle or thereabouts, within an hour or so,” Expressway Operation, Maintenance and Management Division Director, T.K. Ranatunga told the Sunday Times.
He explained that motorists should remain alert, regardless of the road being well paved and the number of vehicles on it less than on normal roads. “There are drivers who overtake too closely to the vehicle. We appeal to motorists using the E1 on a rainy day, to go at a lesser speed, as mist can obstruct their view and thus cause an accident,” Mr. Ranatunga said.
According to statistics obtained by the Southern Expressway Department, on average, 11,000 vehicles use the E1 every day, mostly vans and cars, while heavy vehicles are much less.
“Traffic officials are on duty round-the-clock, to ensure motorists abide by the road rules, and to render assistance in an emergency. We also have an emergency number- 1969, should the need arise,” he said.
However, when the Sunday Times tried to contact a traffic official via the given number, it failed, because there was a technical error in the communication line, resulting in the same operator message being repeated several times over.
“Around the time E1 opened, there were several pieces on the Internet claiming the road was poorly designed. What was missing in these criticisms was a sense of proportion. Any assessment of the safety features of E1 has to take into account the safety features of the available alternatives. Compared with Galle Road, E1 is extremely safe. After all, total deaths on E1, since its opening, is six,” said Infrastructure Policy Researcher Prof Rohan Samarajeeva, adding that this is less than on Galle Road.
He further added that one of the issues raised is the lack of space to pull over in an emergency. “If I was a frequent user, I’d get myself a set of those reflective triangles, so that, if I happened to have a breakdown, I could place them a fair distance behind my vehicle,” he further explained.
Prof. Rohan stated that, motorists using the E1 should ensure to maintain the correct distance between the vehicle ahead and the one behind. He explained that it is important that users of the E1 always follow the two-second rule and maintain a safe distance.
“In my opinion, it is very important in countries like ours, where the normal speed of traffic is very slow, and people are used to vehicles being close together,” he said.
National Council for Road Safety Secretary Udaya Mallawarachchi stated that motorists should check the brakes, tyre pressure and the lights before using the E1, as another reason for accidents on the E1 is the poor conditions of vehicles.
He explained that motorists should ensure that their vehicles are roadworthy for high speed travel.
“We always request motorists to be mindful of their speed, because on the E1, when one exceeds the 100 kmph limit, he/she doesn’t feel it for want of landmarks close by, as drivers normally measure speed by such landmarks,” he said.
He further said that all passengers must wear seat belts when using the E1, as accidents at such high speeds could be fatal.
The Road Development Authority (RDA), from the experience it has gained from the first ever Expressway, hopes to improve on the construction of such roads in the future, such as the Colombo- Katunayake expressway due to be opened in August.
Mr Ranatunga explained that several improvements are being incorporated in the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, such as planting trees in centre lanes to cut out the glare from the headlights of oncoming vehicles.
E1 revenue for 2013, as of end February is Rs 1.3 billion, with 4.4 million vehicles using it. The average income per day this year is Rs 3.3 million, which has increased from last year’s average income of Rs 2.8 million per day.

Tragedy on E1 due to excessive speed and recklessness

The wrecked vehicle

Forty-year-old Inoka Damayanthi feebly stretched out her hand to touch her husband and youngest daughter who did not respond, as they usually did. “My husband, my child, gone, gone” she wailed as they lay in wooden coffins. Her other daughter (12) stood in a corner, silently watching her mother.

Hiruni, the daughter who survived

The two were killed in an accident on the Southern Expressway last Saturday (16) around 4 p.m. The family of four, residents of Dodangoda, Kalutara, were in their van, on the way to a relative’s pirith ceremony in Hakmana, when a speeding Montero hit them from behind near the Elpitiya exit. Ajith Priyantha (42) and his wife, Inoka, and two daughters were rushed to Elpitiya hospital, where Ajith succumbed to serious head injuries and several injuries to his abdomen and spinal cord. His youngest daughter Hashini Rashmika succumbed to her injuries last Tuesday (19) at Karapitiya Teaching Hospital, where she and her other family members were transferred to, due to the seriousness of their injuries.

“I saw my father and sister thrown out of the van when our vehicle got hit from behind. When I tried to wake up my father he was unconscious and I heard my mother cry in pain,” said 12-year-old Hiruni Vishmika, as she painfully recalled the incident. She said that, as no one came to their aid, she had to crawl to the highway in search of help.

“She had been on the highway for some time until some youth came to her aid. The injured were put into a vehicle and taken to the nearest hospital,” Ven. Balaharuwe Seelananda Thera, a close relative of the family, told the Sunday Times.

According to him, as the Montero hit them, the van was dragged over 100 metres, before it tripped off the highway. The driver of the Montero was released on surety bail. The Ven. Thera believes this was because one of the passengers in the vehicle was a Director of the Agriculture Ministry.

The wrecked vehicle

“How can the law allow a person to leave freely, when two people were killed by his mistake? This incident has completely destroyed this family and our lives. Jailing the driver wouldn’t bring my brother or his daughter back, but we need justice. These incidents should not be allowed to recur in future and leave the innocent helpless,” lamented Weerasinghe Hettiarachchi (50), brother of the deceased.
Elpitiya police investigations reveal that the Montero was travelling at 118-120 kmph and the van at a speed of 80-90 kmph. The accident occurred as Mohamed Riyaz who was driving very close to the van, tried to overtake it.

Mohamed Riyaz, the driver who was remanded on March 16, was released on surety bail of Rs. 200,000 last Monday morning by Elpitiya Magistrate Kesara Samaradivakara. Later, the vehicle too was released on Thursday (21).

The Sunday Times learns that the police have been under pressure to expedite investigations and the driver released, as he was a close relative of a former national cricketer.

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