Before any person qualifies to sit behind a steering wheel in a movable vehicle and to be called a ‘driver,' one needs to have the basic knowledge of the Highway Code, along with requisite experience and practical skills and a licence to drive motor vehicles.
Multiple of articles and radio / TV discussions have been focusing on the topic of Sri Lankan driving techniques, traffic problems, road accidents and associated deaths for the past so many years; everyday TV and radio news is not complete without having to announce a fatal road accident in some part of the country involving human misery.
The recent government proposal to impose heavy fines on traffic offenders, as per a Magistrate's Court order, has managed to disturb the hornets' nest of the Private Bus Owners Associations, three-wheeler associations and school vans associations that staged an island-wide one-day strike pushing the commuters into inconvenience. It is a sad affair in Sri Lanka that at the drop of a hat trade union leaders are ready to stage strikes rather than first going into round-table conferences and argue their case justifiably. President Maithripala Sirisena's agreement to appoint a committee, to look into the grievances of bus owners stating that ‘the government is ready to listen’, has put the general transport strike, which bus unions were getting ready to continue, into a temporary abeyance.
The government had to come hard on heels of traffic offenders after consultations with the officials of the Transport, Justice and Finance Ministry, the Police, Road Safety Authority, Transport Commission and the Motor Traffic Department, taking into account the increase in number of road accidents totaling 37,345, out of which 30,166 were due to negligent and reckless driving. About 1,796 drivers were nabbed being under the influence of liquor while driving in 2014 and 326 had died after road accidents with 147 directly due to drunken driving. A British citizen presently resident in Sri Lanka once summerised her 'on the road experience' as follows:
"Seated in the rear seat almost dozing off while being chauffeured, and looking around what did I see? I saw the double command of a red traffic light and a policeman loudly blowing his orange plastic whistle and halting all the traffic. Looking at a passing private bus, I could see overloaded passengers getting crushed while some mortals were standing and hanging on to their dear life! I could not call the man seated behind the steering wheel a 'driver', because a driver surely should have at least the minimum legal requirements of the Highway Code and possess the responsibility and practical skills prior to taking hundreds of passengers carelessly on a public road in a colossal vehicle! I suspected whether he possessed either of those qualifications! He had his mobile phone glued to ear position and managed the oversized steering wheel with the other hand merrily chatting away on the phone with total disregard for the safety of his passengers."
"Full-size, heavy, bus tyres did not show a sign of any tread, not even a microscopic groove left in them except shiny and bald as a coot! When the traffic lights changed, with the blaring of horns all around from impatient drivers positioned in the wrong lane, undertaking and overtaking from all sides existed as if there is no tomorrow! The bus with human cargo, driver still on his cell phone, disappeared into the twilight in a cloud of black, respiratory clogging smog. It is rather pathetic to find that life is so disrespected in Sri Lanka on the roads with so many using their own bullyboy tactics when it comes to driving".
Bus and three-wheeler drivers are the worst culprits on the road. They have no regard either to their passengers or their own lives! Private bus drivers are in competition on the road to get passengers from particular towns, which make them, not only overtake from the left but keep on speeding and crossing lanes, while standing passengers get swerved hostilely. If you are an elderly person, just forget about bus travel in Sri Lanka.
On 5 December 2016, what viewers saw on Hiru TV news was a typical example of two buses engaged in a race where the overtaking bus went out of control and hit a wall killing a person. Several motorcyclists stopped in advance having spotted the race, and bystanders escaped by a fraction, as they stood aghast frozen with fear.
The writer once had a friendly chat with one of the private bus drivers who explained as to why such predicaments occur. He put the blame on the government for not scheduling a timetable properly, as it appears that every 15 minutes or so a bus is allowed to follow the same route and if the first bus gets slowed down, either due to traffic or some other reason, the following bus tries to overtake and take the passengers from prominent bus stands ahead, giving rise to an unwarranted race.
So, from the point of bus drivers, they suggest that the basic infrastructure has to be done for the smooth movement of all types of vehicles, along with a well spread out time tables for buses to take off from a terminal. It is also mentioned that the driver/conductor team has to take home a certain amount of money at the end of the day for which speeding, overtaking and packing passengers to sardine level takes place. This appears to be one of the main reasons they are opposed to the heavy fines, for one thing they could not afford, under the circumstances, to pay out of pocket money as fines.
By the same token, those who are hell bent on maintaining heavy fines even suggest increasing the fines up to Rs 50,000. They say that the only way to discipline erratic drivers is to fine until it hurts them. They also point a finger at motorcyclists who always hug the middle or the outer lane of the road, and those who cross the white dividing line and ride on the wrong side of the oncoming traffic.
Some argue bringing the death penalty as a parallel and ask whether is it not justifiable to send a murderer to the gallows. Similarly, is it wrong to impose a heavy fine on those who are committing a crime, because killing a person by reckless driving is considered as a criminal offence. They further argue that if everyone learns to drive patiently and follow the Highway Code there will be no issue at all with the fine. Why fear about a fine if you do not err? They ask. This group of people who are in favour of heavy fines agree with the Chairman Dr. Sisira Kodagoda's interpretation, “It is only when people are forced to pay heavy fines or face harsh punishment they will realize the gravity of the committed offence."
The latest statistics, however, show a reduction of road accidents and deaths just by the mention of the word heavy fine proposal. People have also seen on TV and newspaper coverage how hundreds, mostly youths, who were 'jerked' to get medical clearance, which is a pre-requisite to get a new driving licence or to renew their expired licence, at the very mention of the high penalties that are going to be imposed on traffic offenders. The Medical Institute at Nugegoda has confirmed that many of such applicants were young 'tuck tuk' drivers, and those who drove heavy vehicles who possessed light vehicle licences too have got their licences upgraded. Don't all these give a clear indication to the populace and authorities as to how many inept drivers are taking vehicles on the road to the detriment of humans?
Those who neither support heavy fines nor hell bent on fines, propose that laws must be amended and put into activity prior to imposing of any fines, which include amendments to the Highway Code, which is antiquated in some areas. They suggest that by making it a punishable offence to hug on to the fast lane except for overtaking purposes; near side lane should be exclusively made for the use of bus lanes, heavy goods vehicles and motorcycles and three-wheelers' use. A minimum speed limit and a fine should be introduced to middle lane hogging 'weekend-drivers' who block the movement of vehicles.
The introduction of a proper payment system to replace the present problematic and chaotic method where a driver has to part with the licence, after committing an offence, and go to a post office and pay the fine with an extra 10 per cent, and travel all the way back to the Police station of the town where the incident took place. Even from the time the previous government was in power there were hints and promises to make traffic fines payable with the help of a mobile phone but so far, nothing constructive has taken place. They also say what is most dangerous is the practice almost all the filling stations in Sri Lanka adopt by issuing petrol to soft drink plastic bottles, which is dangerous, petrol being a highly volatile liquid. In advanced countries this is totally prohibited and there are specially designed plastic cans, which hold up to one gallon of petrol available from filling stations. Also it is the law in those countries to switch the car engine off, while petrol is pumped into a vehicle.
Whether the traffic fine comes down below Rs 25,000, for overtaking from the left, driving without a valid licence, allowing someone, who possesses a driving licence, to drive taking a vehicle on to the road without insurance and road tax and those who attempt to jump railway crossings once the gates are closed, or maintain that severe punishment needs to be imposed for those who commit those seven offences, with their driving licence suspended for a specific period by a Court Order.