Sri Lankans faced a shocking and distressing spell during the LTTE conflict when the death smell was in the air persistently. A few decades ago, prior to such an abhorrent phase, the sound of the word 'death' or having to attend a 'funeral' managed to generate apprehension and fear among the people because death occurred in a neighbourhood only once in a blue moon. For the first time people in Sri Lankans were traumatised having to witness cold blooded murder or decapitated humans burning on spikes along the road sides, with fetid human body oil draining out of such scorching bodies, due to a drastic policy adopted by the JVP (Peoples' Liberation Front) policy once, as a result of their social struggle against the government as much as due to tit for tat operations by the security forces to eradicate the problem. The word 'death' seemingly began to benumb the human feelings to such an extent that the revulsion of hearing of a murder or a person dying a natural death diminished and transformed into something inconsequential.
Thank heavens! There are no more such killings or deaths in the country, but contrary to such reassuring and encouraging thoughts, what the nation has been facing was a different version of loss of human life and injury due to motor vehicles and road accidents. In this regard, the National Hospital of Sri Lanka once launched a 'Road safety awareness project' on traffic accidents on roads, to report on a daily basis, the sole idea being to bring about sensitivity and awareness to all authorities concerned.
Similarly, the Institute of Legal Medicine and Toxicology revealed that more than 50 per cent of 'unnecessary' deaths were caused due to road accidents; sufferers from road traffic injuries added up to thousands with no compensation or insurance payments to victims, which brought not only misery to the people but became a heavy burden on the Ministry of Health budget as unwarranted expenses could have otherwise been easily utilized to improve hospitals and medical healthcare in the country.
Everyone was aware of the basic fact that road accidents were due to the indiscipline on the part of road users, including both pedestrians and motorists. Many erudite individuals have filled the newspaper columns with their concerns and suggestions on the subject, which appeared to be ever increasing as a social menace. News coverage on TV and the print media talked about it incessantly. Even the police spokesmen came on TV 'chat shows' and accepted the dilemma, but everything unfortunately was confined only to a lip service! Motorists, who sat behind a steering wheel, displayed conjoint naivety about the Highway Code and road discipline. Even those who were familiar with the rule of the law on road began to espouse a mindset of joining the 'road-idiots' with the premise of 'If you can't beat them, join them' attitude.
It is very unfortunate that pedestrians as much as private bus drivers seem to consider public roads as their private domain; pedestrians crossing the roads willy nilly from any place, without paying any heed to moving vehicles or to their own lives. At traffic signals when red lights flash and buses stop, commuters keep jumping out of the buses into the traffic queues that make the problem very acute and thorny. This is partly because in Sri Lanka, unlike in developed countries, bus drivers are unable to close and open doors to ingress and exit of passengers (except at the bus halts) due to the type of buses both, private as well as SLTB not having such facilities. On the other hand, private bus drivers' main aim appears to be only to fill the buses with many passengers as possible to sardine-packed level, disregarding the commuter comfort, just to make an extra buck!
In this regard the general responsibility has been thrust upon the traffic police, they being the official custodians of accident prevention by implementing the motor traffic laws to the very letter. Undoubtedly quite often, even the police have been subjected to heavy pressures coming from above, which have reduced them to pawns on a chessboard.
At long last the unity government has introduced a new system of imposing heavy fines up to Rs 25,000 on errant drivers who overtake from the left, drive without a valid driving licence, minus any insurance on the vehicle they drive, permitting anyone who does not hold a valid driving licence, driving under the influence of liquor, disobeying railway crossing regulations erratically.
Such an initiative has been taken after consultations and advice from the officials attached to Sri Lanka Transport, Justice and Finance Ministry, Road Safety Authority, Transport Commission, the Motor traffic Department and the Police, taking into account the increasing number of road accidents and deaths.
There were many arguments to start with, for and against the heavy fines. Some, including a few government ministers stuck to their guns and stood firmly by the new penalty decision on errant drivers insisting that it should be increased even up to Rs 50,000. On the other hand, critics pointed an accusing finger at the corrupt police officers stating that the increase in fines would only help the traffic police officers to make hay while the sun shines. Their argument was based on drunken drivers, for example, who might be tempted to part with say Rs 10,000 to a shady cop and show a clean pair of heels after committing an offence, rather than having to waste time in Magistrates Courts later, thus saving Rs 15,000 also by avoiding such a hassle.
To a certain degree such accusations become rational arguments, because on many an occasion rotten eggs in the basket full of dedicated and honest police officers have tarnished the force's name. The writer was an eyewitness to such a 'rotten apple in the core' of the police force when his driver was stopped suddenly on 21 December 2016 by a traffic police officer from Kosgoda police station, for no reason at all, when the driver was simply going behind a van while driving towards Induruwa.
The traffic police officer's excuse for stopping was that the driver attempted to overtake a three-wheeler. His driver's reasoning out with explanations fell on deaf ears of the police constable, which ended up the poor guy having to surrender his driving licence and getting a receipt (No.459726/ I/2579569) along with a penalty charge sheet for Rs 500.
On the charge sheet he noticed that a wrong endorsement had been made which read, 'Overtaking a vehicle recklessly 148(4)'. Due to a postal strike on that day we were inconvenienced to no end. The driver wanted to pay the fine and collect his driving licence while in the area, without having to make another trip later. Finally, after a long drive to locate the nearest Provincial Secretariat and paying the fine (which again was a cumbersome operation) the driver went back to the spot where the two traffic police officers were on duty. After recovering his licence he told the officer, "Sir, you charged me for no fault of mine. Can you see a little camera attached to the windscreen? It records every movement in front of the vehicle with time and date”.
“I never did overtake a vehicle but you have on the ‘dada kolaya’ (charge sheet) written something completely wrong. My boss writes to newspapers and I am sure he will highlight this with facts.” But the police constable's response was owa paththarawala daanne nehe (newspapers do not publish such stories.). I am still awaiting the printout of the incident from the camera, to write to the IGP to expose such deficiencies in the police force, which should help him to root out the evil before critics’ forewarnings become a reality when heavy fines come into effect.
On the brighter side, the mention of the word heavy fine proposal has been able to jerk many who did not either have a driving licence or those who had their licences expired, including those drivers who were involved in driving heavy vehicles with light vehicle licences, queuing up to get medical clearances, which is a prerequisite to get a new licence or renew expired driving licences.
On 3 January 2017, the writer travelled on the road from Colombo to Trincomalee and was pleased to see not a single motor car overtaking from the left, except of course the odd private bus engaged in a mad rush in the early hours disregarding anyone on the road and overtaking at speed quite recklessly. Similarly the motorcyclists still pose a dangerous threat on the road as they seem to hug the middle of the road, during the peak traffic hours jumping out of traffic queues and ride on opposite lanes while crossing the white middle lane, which is hazardous to oncoming vehicles. Therefore, it would be appropriate to take drastic steps in the form of heavy fines on them too, to eradicate the menace and discipline them. After all, what matters is not a heavy fine but a loss of human life!