By Jayantha Jayaweera, BSc Civil Eng (Lon), MIE (Aust), CPEng I had just returned from Sri Lanka after attending the Thurstan College vs. Isipathana College 50th big match encounter at the SSC cricket grounds. I spent 11 memorable days in Colombo and Galle with my schoolmates of both schools, whom I met after some considerable [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Stopping the carnage on Lankan highways


By Jayantha Jayaweera, BSc Civil Eng (Lon), MIE (Aust), CPEng

I had just returned from Sri Lanka after attending the Thurstan College vs. Isipathana College 50th big match encounter at the SSC cricket grounds. I spent 11 memorable days in Colombo and Galle with my schoolmates of both schools, whom I met after some considerable time.

During my visit, I noticed a substantial improvement to road infrastructure largely thanks to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision for better roads for the future. I agree with the Defence Secretary’s courage to rebuild Colombo in line with other larger cities in the world.

In the past, Colombo was a well-planned city until R. Premadasa became the Prime Minister of the country. He changed the whole planning procedure that had existed within the City of Colombo since the times of the British Raj to accommodate his henchman and party supporters, and built unauthorised structures all over Colombo. He and his henchmen politicised the administration of the Town Hall and that legacy continued for 40 years until recently.

The renovated ‘Daha Ata Wanguwa’ on the Kandy–Mahiyangana road, is well built with modern road signs. Pic by M.A.Pushpa Kumara

Now, Colombo is much cleaner and has a number of beautiful open spaces thanks to the Defence Secretary. However, the safety of the commuters within the island roads is not safe. Driver skills are still unbelievably below international standards. Government statistics reveal that the number of people getting killed and injured on roads due to the motor vehicle accidents has alarmingly increased to unacceptable levels. The answer to this is that the island roads are not safe for road users and the Government must do something to minimise numbers to acceptable levels.

The Government has been spending billions of rupees to reconstruct the road network in Sri Lanka since the end of the war. No doubt the road pavements are in much better shape than four years ago. However, the roads are a death trap for pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and motor cars. The question is, how do we improve road safety for all road users?

Traffic Committees

During my short stay, I was driving in and around Colombo and went to Mirissa on the new expressway. My thoughts were that poor driver skills, lack of clear road signs and traffic calming devices at crucial places on the highways are the main contributors for the continuation of this carnage. Drivers in Sri Lanka do not have any understanding of road rules and do not have any respect for other road users, and drive aggressively. This is very dangerous when driving at high speeds on the new expressways.

One of the factors contributing to driver behaviour is the lack of useful signs on roadsides. Part of the problem is that the relevant authorities with responsibility for traffic in Sri Lanka work independently. A better approach would be to install road signs along all major highways and introduce driver safety awareness schemes in an alliance with the Traffic Police and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Traffic committees should be formed at district levels consisting representatives from the Traffic Police, traffic engineers from local councils and the Road Development Authority (RDA) and local politicians. A unified approach will help to solve differences among authorities and confusion among drivers.

Driver skills

In Sri Lanka, we cannot divide drivers into categories like in other developed countries. I have only one category for them: it is the worst category. This is a good start and will help the authorities to develop and implement a tier system for driver licensing. The existing system for driver training and procedure for driver licence issuing within the DMV is corrupt and must be examined and reviewed. It is a crime to obtain a driver licence and be at the wheel without having appropriate driver skills. These unskilled drivers are a risk to others and licencing them is equivalent to giving them a licence to kill innocent road users. Our road network has changed dramatically after the introduction of expressways into the network in 2011.

The new roads are designed and constructed to go faster. Modern day drivers love to speed, especially the youngsters. Therefore it is the right time to making changes to existing driver testing procedures.

I suggest that a new Highway Code for trainer drivers be developed and published. The driver testing procedure should be divided into two parts: a knowledge test and a practical test.

Computerised examinations based on the Highway Code for the knowledge test must be developed. These questions would be stored in a computer system and be chosen at random when candidates sit for the examination. Such a system would minimise cheating and will ensure drivers will have read and understood the Highway Code before setting out on the road.

To minimise corruption, the names of driver examiners attached to the Motor Registry could be stored in the computer. The examiner’s name will be picked randomly by the computer when the candidate presents for the practical test. This procedure will also minimise fraud.

The issuing of driver licence to newcomers should be in the provisional category and that should be further divided into two subcategories:

Provisional Red Plate for one year
Provisional Green plate for two years.

The provisional red plate drivers are allowed to drive to 80 per cent of the legal speed limit and the green plate drivers 90 per cent of the legal speed. A curfew for red plate drivers could be imposed between 10 pm and 5 am on major highways and other necessary restrictions should be introduced. This would prevent youngsters driving at night under the influence of alcohol.
Validation of a driver’s licence should be for a maximum of five years, and all drivers will have to sit for the knowledge test when their licences require renewing.

Black-spots on highways

While I was driving in Sri Lanka I have noticed that small scale signs were installed at certain locations warning drivers about the accident prone areas. The signs are too small to read and not designed to any standard. The tragedy is that the drivers are not bothered about the signs and are overtaking vehicles at blind spots. This practice puts incoming vehicles in a very dangerous situation. I had a narrow escape somewhere between Koggala and Galle. I was proceeding to Galle for lunch from the Fortress Hotel in Koggala. Galle Road is narrow and lacks road shoulders on either side of the road, which makes the situation worse. There were a number of pedestrians and cyclists on the road as well. I was vigilant and driving at 35km/h-40km/h. An incoming passenger bus belonging to the SLTB overtook another bus on a very narrow bend where a high number of accidents had occurred previously. There were even warning signs on both sides of the road. However, the bus driver did not pay attention to the signs and was on the wrong side of the road doing 60 km/h. I had to use the verge to avoid a head on collision. He did not even bother to stop or slow down, endangering not only my life but the lives of the 50 to 60 passengers on his bus.

The positive side is that the RDA has identified that location as a black spot. However, the signs are clearly not providing any benefit. My advice is to transform the existing single carriageway into a dual carriageway by placing Jersey kerbs or a median island in the middle of the road to a certain distance. This will prevent overtaking and avoid head-on collisions, and save lives.

Traffic calming devices

There are many pedestrian crossings on all major highways in Sri Lanka. However, pedestrians have to negotiate painfully to cross the road through moving traffic. Moving traffic does not stop for pedestrians, either because they do not care about pedestrians or they do not understand basic road rules. The road is for all road users and does not belong only to vehicles. This attitude towards other road users such as pedestrians and cyclists must be stopped at any cost. It is too dangerous to cross the road using a pedestrian crossing. For me they are death traps. The majority of the pedestrian crossings cannot even be seen after 6 pm because there is not enough lighting provided at them. The rule is to stop your vehicle when you see a pedestrian step on to the road pavement from the kerb at a pedestrian crossing. The majority of drivers ignore this rule because of their attitude towards the other road users.

To overcome this, the authority can introduce raised threshold pedestrian crossings wherever practicable. The raised threshold pedestrian crossings slow down the vehicles approaching the crossing due to the height of the crossing. The height of the ramps of the threshold would need to be not more than 150mm above the road pavement to a distance of 2m. Pedestrian crossing in town centres and outside schools are ideal locations for raised threshold pedestrian crossings. This would save lives, especially of school children.
Sri Lanka has been a hot spot for tourists since the end of the war. Tourism authorities have a vision of increasing the number of tourists visiting the island up to 2 million by the end of year 2015. It is the right time for us to get our Traffic Act right, and eliminate this mania for good.

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