Not a week passes without a major accident on our roads and the showpiece of the Government – the new road network countrywide — is becoming the ‘kiss of death’ for many. The facts are telling: Someone dies in a road accident every four hours in Sri Lanka. There have been 738 deaths in traffic [...]


The new terrorism


Not a week passes without a major accident on our roads and the showpiece of the Government – the new road network countrywide — is becoming the ‘kiss of death’ for many.

The facts are telling: Someone dies in a road accident every four hours in Sri Lanka. There have been 738 deaths in traffic accidents in just the first four months of this year. In 2012, there were 2,425 such deaths and in 2011, it was 2,676. The number killed averages six to seven a day for the past five years. In addition, there were several people injured every day, some of them disabled for life. From January to April this year the number of people injured was 2,061 and last year, as many as 42,088 were badly injured.

Often it is the law of the jungle on the roads; both in the crowded cities and towns as well as the vast open roads around the country where good road surfaces not only provide for quicker and more comfortable journeys, but also a dangerous disregard for the Highway Code.

This is the cost of development. The problem is a combination of factors. Firstly, these roads do not have the accompanying lights (at night), culverts, pavements and consideration for pedestrians crossing the road. On the expressways, the ‘shoulders’ are too narrow to park in emergencies. Much of this has been attributed to corruption with local contractors pocketing these ‘extras’ in road development and ‘oiling’ the politicians to get the contracts. These result in cost over-runs. One sees big hoardings stating the project and under whose direction it is, and sometimes who is funding it, but never the cost involved. A Right to Information Law that gives these figures in most other countries is deliberately being blocked in Sri Lanka.

Secondly there is corruption at other levels – from the issue of driving licences to police officers, both in the ownership of private buses purchased from bribes, and traffic cops who permit wrongdoers to get away by accepting a bribe as revenue collection for themselves while harassing others so that they can meet their ‘targets’ in revenue collection for the state.

There are other contributory factors. The roadworthiness or otherwise of vehicles; corrupt emission tests; overworked drivers; lack of health checks on long distance truck and bus drivers; the lack of dual carriageways to avoid head-on collisions and lack of protection at pedestrian crossings unprotected railway crossings; some private coach drivers being high on drugs and even deliberate accidents caused by those pursuing insurance claims.

VIPs and their escort vehicles showing scant respect for other road users and pedestrians alike is another factor. Then, most heavy vehicles like trucks and buses are imported from India where there are 20,000 very serious accidents annually (55 a day) largely involving ‘Made in India’ heavy vehicles – sometimes due to human error but more often due to mechanical failure.

The whole question needs a massive review at the highest levels of Government if the purpose of good and better roads is not to be defeated by the reasons we have mentioned. Currently, the Transport Ministry and the Japanese aid agency, JAICA, are conducting studies, but the issue seems a gigantic task if this dangerous trend is to be rectified.

The President says new roads require new and higher speed limits. While this may normally be true, it can also mean the death knell for road users, especially hapless pedestrians who get knocked down by speeding vehicles and reckless drivers.

If one were to identify the No.1 cause of this problem, it has to be corruption. A reporter of this newspaper was told by a traffic policeman that when they stopped two motorcyclists riding high capacity bikes brought down for the ‘Colombo Night Races’ but which are not supposed to be used on public roads, they were ordered to release the culprits. When a vehicle user is hit by certain ‘privileged’ buses, the traffic cop shrugs his shoulders and says “Meka apey bus ekak neh” (this is one of our buses isn’t it) and releases the culprits.
Next to the VIPs, these buses rule the highways. The speeding, overtaking, horning laws do not apply to them because bus owners are senior policemen’s wives or those who have bribed police stations along the route they ply.

As long as this institutionalised corruption – in the construction of roads and implementation of the Highway Code — is not remedied, this newfangled terrorism on the roads will continue unabated. It may not receive the same headlines a shooting or a bomb would have, but it is terrorism nevertheless.

With greater motorisation, people are driving more and more vehicles, very often that don’t even belong to them. Road courtesy is non-existent, a word from a bygone era. Pressing the gas is the name of the game. The ‘Decade of Road Safety’ campaign launched by the authorities last year, we are told, was limited to the launch ceremony. A Government that didn’t have the courage to take on the two-stroke trishaws to curb environment pollution would probably not be able to tackle anything bigger.

In most developed countries, with the expansion of the road network came requirements for stricter road discipline. Getting a driving licence and keeping it were not easy. The tragedy is that in Sri Lanka, most road accidents are not really ‘accidents’. They are the result of a chronic defect – in the ‘system’.

This commission an act of omission

The President this week declared open a brand new building for the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption.  The Commission has lost its glamour – if it ever had any – as an institution fighting sleaze in the country. Built on a shaky foundation, with a flawed law and toothless mechanism, constituted of ex-judges and retired senior police officers, it was policemen who were tasked to inquire into bribery and corruption, an awkward assignment, given that the Police Department had the dubious distinction of being the No.1 bribe taker in the country.

Prima facie cases have fallen by the wayside and the few ‘sharks’ brought before the commission have escaped due to procedural defects, while the ‘sprats’ have been thrown to ravenous wolves. Even the Commissioners have lamented that the law precludes them from initiating inquiries, a lame excuse when on the other hand, it moves at the speed of greased lightning to charge perceived opponents of the Government, as seen in the indictment of Chief Justice 43.

The Attorney General took over files to add some ‘oomph’ into its prosecutions, but with the Department coming under the President, its credibility slumped and the Commission is now perceived as a mere Government tool, the amiable Commissioners notwithstanding. The Stock Exchange mafia carries on; bribery and corruption are rampant.

The 18th Amendment has emasculated the Commission even further. As Greek philosopher Alcauus said ages ago; “Not stones, not walls, nor the art of the artisans make a state; but where men are who know how to take care of themselves; these are cities and walls”.

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