OH! WHAT A MESS WE ARE IN?
By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando
People in this country have read in newspapers, until their eye balls go hexagonal, listened to the Radio/TV discussions of various government officials, eminent intellectuals and Police spokesmen commenting, criticizing and suggesting ways and means of reducing road accidents and ever mounting traffic jams, until the listeners go deaf in their ears, but has there been any encouraging results except everyone getting emotional with ideas all the time? Sri Lanka is one of the countries inundated with umpteen numbers of rules and regulations, which have confined only to the statute book.
Towards the end of 2016, the government announced its intentions to increase heavy traffic related fines. Many seemed agitated while some applauded the move and even suggested to increase the penalty up to Rs 50,000, to save human life from road accidents.
Proverbially speaking, new brooms sweep well. Everything appeared to work like clockwork at first while motorists got alarmed, thus "lane discipline" was beginning to be a reality, with "no overtaking from the left." However, within months, everything seems to have gone in the reverse gear, while the same old habits of "overtaking from the left" are becoming a common feature.
The introduction of bus lanes was announced a few weeks ago to reduce traffic congestion. It was considered by some as a blessing in disguise to see buses 'restricted' to the nearside lane only. In May 2017, the Lanka Bus Owners' Association pointed a finger at the government officials for the inordinate delay in implementing the regulation. With the announcement of bus lanes, motorists too were thrown into confusion with regard to what action they should take when they have to turn off to a side road on the left.
Finally, when bus lanes come into force there will be chaos and confusion with motorists having no option but compelling to use the bus lanes, if and when they have to turn off to their left. In such a backdrop, what actions will the traffic Police take is not crystal clear? Will there be a Police officer to monitor traffic at every junction where there is a left turn along bus lanes? Or will the motorist get a fine (dada kolaya) for violating traffic laws by driving into a bus lane, even for a few metres?
In the Sri Lankan motor scene, the majority of drivers display only a selfish attitude and never allow another to enter into the main road from a side road, or even to cross a lane after indicating properly well in advance. Only the bold and daring drivers manage to put their "nose" forward and manage. In such circumstances, rarely one comes across a courteous driver allowing another vehicle to get in front of him!
In developed countries there are especially designed lanes restricted for bus and tram travel. Bus lanes in the UK operate on staggered hours (during peak traffic periods); taxis too are permitted to use bus lanes. Unlike in Sri Lanka, nowhere else in the world buses are seen overtaking vehicles in a mad rush tooting ear-splitting horns. CCTV cameras in the UK take over traffic Police or traffic warden's responsibilities as these units are fixed onto double-decker buses also. If and when a motorist violates the bus lane regulation, a penalty notice will reach his home address within a week, with exact time of the offence and photographs of his vehicle showing clearly how the wrongdoing has been committed, supported by CCTV photographs.
24/7 special traffic plan
The latest news issued by the Police Headquarters to resolve traffic problems appears to be the introduction of another 24/7 special traffic plan covering the whole of the metropolis with the aid of private unmarked vehicles with Police officers in civvies.
If the government is serious about building a disciplined motorist society, few changes become compulsory. Firstly, fundamental regulation in the High Way Code – i.e. overtaking from the right has to be implemented to the letter. Equally, it is not going to be a simple task either with the country's infrastructure of roads, built by Colonials, are increasingly getting overflowed with vehicles on a daily basis. Equally, vehicles parked adjacent to pavements on main roads compel drivers to hug middle and overtaking lanes. Therefore, allocation of parking bays becomes necessary prior to resolving all such problems. Due to these circumstances one cannot blame some drivers hugging the middle lane at crawling speeds or others blocking the overtaking lanes continuously. It really is a vicious circle!
Motorcyclists and tuk tuks
Motorcyclists' belief that roads are their own domains needs to be nipped in the bud with relentless booking and heavy fines. Heavy goods vehicles and container movements need to be confined to night travel only, while motorcyclists and three wheelers should not be allowed to come to the middle of any lane and block the traffic flow.
Looking sympathetically at traffic Police, one needs to be sensible to understand that they start work at 6 a.m. and carry on non-stop till 6-7 p.m. getting baked in the scorching sun or drenched in the rain. Some vital suggestions made by several senior Police superintendents to stagger traffic Police officers' working shifts from 6 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. – 10 p.m. would appear to have been regarded as 'verbal diarrhoea' by the policy makers. It would be interesting to note how this new 24/7 scheme is going to be effective.
Leaving traffic problems and road deaths aside, if the government's aim is to boost tourism, then at least the country should live up to the advertising image of a ‘Paradise Island’. In this regard remedial action to maintain cleaner streets, buildings free of indecorous and political graffiti painted by undesirable elements need to be taken into account, along with stray dogs, cattle and professional beggars.
Sri Lanka always expects and forecasts a tourist boom without concentrating on basic nitty gritty of problems, but focusing only on the foreign exchange out of tourism. The public at large has been constantly writing letters and feature articles to the editors of newspapers pointing out various weak expanses in the system where repulsion of tourists takes place rather than attraction. Some such areas highlighted are about exorbitant two-tier system of charging from tourists at prominent tourist attractions such as Sigiriya and Pinnawela. It is seen as downright discrimination. Considering the fact that extra money for maintenance for these places is vitally important, some eyebrows are raised as to where such collected funds at Sigiriya are going to, definitely not to government coffers or to the Tourist Board. (The writer is unable to confirm this though).
Public washrooms are a major issue when it comes to tourism. While astronomical charges are being levied from the public and tourists for the use of such amenities, many toilets remain absolutely below par, some without toilet paper, broken bidet showers and the worst being the unbearable stench that emanates out of urinals. Recently Kataragama came into heavy criticism for charging money out of tourists for the use of washrooms in the absence any toilet paper.
There is no point blaming the government or the Tourist Board for every trivial mishap when there are responsible government officials appointed to supervise and ensure that the system works like clockwork. Equally, it becomes the responsibility of the toilet cleaners to do an honest day's work for the wages they earn. The big wigs by just sitting back in air-conditioned rooms in plush offices and engaging in a pecking order too will not help, instead they too have to shift their backsides, visit some of these places and inspect for themselves to understand the reality of the situation, for which supposedly they can claim handsomely, as circuit rounds.
We, Sri Lankans, are so proud of our culture and customs and keep on bragging often about our century’s old civilization, but there exists a problem whether we should encourage vulgarity along with tourism! Certainly, Sri Lanka needs foreign exchange but, should it be done at the expense of a few dollars tourists are expected to spend here? Down South beaches and some of the luxury hotel grasslands are often infested with half naked female bodies sunbathing. Hikkaduwa is the most popular area for tourists where odd white muscular pieces of humanity are often seen either scouting for boys, or shapely bonds in G-string bikinis, walking on the main road making it an entertainment and a free show for the unsophisticated villager who follows these characters in pied pier fashion, observing how white buttocks move like two rabbits in a sac! This happens despite Sri Lanka having laws to curb indecent behaviour in public places with a special tourist Police force.
“A conclusion is simply the place where you got tired of thinking”. – Dan Chaon