The end of the armed conflict, thankfully, brought an end to the wanton destruction of life and property in the country. Many of those who suffered were civilians who were not directly involved in the fighting, but the cost to them was enormous in terms of lost lives and harm caused to their loved ones, [...]


Roads must be converted into safe spaces for citizens


The end of the armed conflict, thankfully, brought an end to the wanton destruction of life and property in the country. Many of those who suffered were civilians who were not directly involved in the fighting, but the cost to them was enormous in terms of lost lives and harm caused to their loved ones, and the consequent trauma they silently suffered.

Yet today, we witness another kind of mayhem being played out before our very eyes, but without receiving the attention it deserves. During the armed conflict, people living in conflict areas, as well as those outside, were always ‘on pins’, when they set out for their daily chores, as to whether they would return safely home at the end of the day or, whether they would be victims of some bomb explosion or, be caught in the crossfire between the protagonists of the violence.

Similarly, today, those who set out for work or, other purposes in public or private transport, find themselves in the same predicament. They are reduced to hoping for the best or, saying a silent prayer that they will return in one piece.

Official statistics reveal that, on an average, 8 deaths occur every day,in the country, due to road accidents. On an average, about 100 accidents occur daily, resulting in injuries to at least another 20 persons, apart from the deaths.

Recently, DIG Motor Traffic Ajit Rohana revealed that the State spends a staggering Rs 3 billion annually, in the Legal processes relating to fatal road accidents alone.

This is attributed to the cost of expenses incurred by Police Officers, Magistrates and Judicial Medical Officers involved in the Legal process relating to the fatal accidents.

How much of expenses are incurred by the State, in relation to other accidents, is not known, but is likely to be a considerable sum.

Equally undetermined is the strain on State coffers due to the demands on the National Health System, as a result of medical care provided to victims of road accidents, but is again likely to be a substantial sum.

Many of the economic challenges faced by the country today are due to factors over which we have little control, whether it be steps taken by the United States in pursuance of its own economic agenda or unexpected weather patterns such as droughts and floods.

But there are many areas within our control which, if given the attention they deserve, can help to lessen the burden on State coffers. Control of the ‘accident regime’ is one such area. As the saying goes, small drops go to make the ocean, indicates every rupee of expenditure saved in areas within its control, will make a positive impact on the economy.

But it is not only the economic aspect that the Government needs to be concerned with. The humanitarian cost to victims is enormous and often, it is the marginalized sections of society that are most affected. Increasingly, we have seen innocent citizens walking on the side of the road or, waiting for a bus to arrive, being mowed down by reckless drivers.

It is the paramount duty of the State to ensure that roads are safe spaces for its citizens who spend most of their time on the roads outside their offices and homes.

Towards this end, there are many steps that can be taken by the authorities, which does not amount to rocket science.

In fact, most such steps are already being taken by the Police, but often, these are done in fits and starts, without sufficient consistency. A good example of this is the measure taken by the Police sometime back, to enforce the ‘stick to your lane rule ‘ on some roads in Colombo, which resulted in the smooth movement of traffic. After a few weeks of enforcing this rule, the Police abandoned their efforts and errant drivers are back to their bad old ways.

If one observes the traffic on R. A. de Mel Mawatha in Colombo, one can often see vehicles moving from one lane to another and then to another, and then back again, with scant respect to the safety of other vehicles, as well as themselves. Usually, the biggest offenders in this respect are the long distance buses, the three-wheelers and motorcycles.

There is a strong and compelling need to change the culture of driving in Sri Lanka, not only to reduce the number of accidents, but also to make the roads less stressful for drivers, and safer for both motorists as well as pedestrians.

An accident, by definition, is an incident that happens unexpectedly or cannot be predicted. But, in the case of many ‘accidents’ on Sri Lankan roads, these incidents can both be expected or predicted. For instance, when one negotiates a bend on the wrong side of the road at high speed, it is not difficult to visualize what can happen if there is an oncoming vehicle on the correct side of the road. The consequences can be tragic, as we witnessed on television screens several months ago, where two Jeeps belonging to the State, made this fatal mistake.

The official website of the Police Dept has listed a number of causes of road accidents, as well as measures that can be taken to prevent such accidents. The list of 25 causes of accidents include reckless and negligent driving, driving under the influence of liquor, fatigue or stress and speeding, among others.

According to DIG Ajit Rohana, 3% of all accidents were attributable to driving under the influence of liquor, with over 60,000 drunken drivers arrested last year alone. This is unpardonable, because such drivers commence their journey knowing fully well they are not only putting themselves at risk, but also putting the lives of others in jeopardy.

There are also other reasons which may have contributed to accidents, particularly, on main roads in outstation areas.

For instance, the indiscriminate use of headlights often blinds the vision of oncoming drivers and can cause difficulties, and sometimes end up in accidents. It must be said however, that many drivers on outstation roads do still pay attention to the needs of other drivers by dipping their headlights whenever necessary, but it must be noted that even one miscreant is enough to cause an accident.

Accidents involving buses also have caused considerable damage to persons and property. The latest incident is the one at Lunugamvehera on Friday, when a private bus and a CTB bus crashed head-on, causing injuries to 81 persons. One passenger has stated that the bus he was travelling in was travelling at a very high speed, while reports indicate that the other bus had been travelling at a moderate speed.

These are common occurrences on outstation roads, where those in smaller vehicles have to veer out of the way when huge buses overtake on the wrong side of the road at high speed. Apart from policing to ensure that road users keep to the speed limits, there is another measure that the CTB used to take at one time in respect of buses plying from Colombo to Kandy.

There was a checkpoint at Peradeniya where the CTB buses would have to clock in and clock out at stated times, so that, there was no purpose served for the driver to drive at excessive speeds. This practice has fallen into disuse and could be revived for long distance buses, with suitable modifications such as setting up more than one point at which the bus should clock in and out.

The first step listed on the Police website to prevent accidents is on the need for drivers to exercise civic responsibility. What this would amount to is the exercise of individual self discipline which is sensitive to the needs of other road users. This is an important aspect of road usage and should be encouraged, but can only be facilitated by a change in the dominant driving culture prevalent today.

If most drivers are prone to breaking the road rules, even a driver who is inclined to follow road rules will be pushed to break a few rules, in order to progress on his intended journey. On the other hand, if the driving culture is more disciplined, then a few errant drivers are likely to be pushed into conforming or, be detected by the Law enforcement authorities.

The authorities should implement a plan to transform the driving culture by reminding road users of how to drive in a disciplined way. This could be done by deploying police officers in civvies at different strategic points, who would spot deviant drivers and educate them on what they were doing wrong.

This cannot be done for one or two weeks, but has to be done consistently for a sufficiently long period of time (say 6 months), so that, there is a gradual change in the driving patterns.

The need to deploy officers in civvies stems from the general practice of the public to observe traffic rules only when they see a Police officer. Such an approach will not ensure the complete change in driving habits, which must become an integral part of a drivers makeup, if the intended change in culture is to be ensured.

There is therefore, an urgent need for the authorities to take tangible steps to make our roads safe for drivers, passengers and pedestrians. If we fail to do so, Sri Lanka will continue to lose valuable lives, many of them for no fault of their own.


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