Killer Buses

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 26 March 2014

Colman's Column3


A few years ago, a sad event integrated us into our local village community. We were invited to a funeral house which should have been celebrating a marriage. Two young men had been born on the same day and had been friends since childhood. One friend was to be married and the other was to be his best man. The best man had won a scholarship to an Australian university. They died on the same day, killed by a speeding bus that pulverised them and their motorcycle.

The sight of the young man on his funeral byre came back to my mind the other as we narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a speeding bus along that same road. The roads in our area are narrow and winding as they climb the mountains. The code is that vehicles coming downhill give way to vehicles going up. We had made our careful way onto a narrow bridge when the monster came hurtling downhill towards us. The driver saw us and knew that we had nowhere to go. He refused to even slow down, let alone give way. His only acknowledgement was to blow black diesel smoke into our faces.

On our trips to Colombo, we have witnessed horrific accidents. On one trip we saw a bus was wedged into the front room of a house. Last week we saw a crowd gathered around a motorcycle which had been cut in half. The people were looking into the ditch, presumably at corpses.

Dr Kapila Wickremanayake, Director, Accident Service, National Hospital Sri Lanka, said in January 2014: “Road-traffic accidents accounted for over 35 percent of the patients (25,876) admitted to our ward in 2012. The victims were pedestrians and motorcyclists who did not wear helmets. They were bus drivers and drunken or careless motorists speeding on the roads ignoring traffic regulations”. Five major road accidents involving buses and motorcyclists, leaving over 80 people critically injured and four dead were reported in the week Dr Wickremanayake spoke. There was a head on collision of a SLTB bus and private bus at Pasyala where 68 persons were injured and one killed.

Trawl through the Sri Lankan newspapers and it is not hard to find many examples of horrendous accidents involving buses. Not far from where we live, on November 4 2013, an SLTB bus fell over a 350 foot precipice on the Bandarawela–Poonagala Road, killing ten and injuring 18. The driver had been speeding, showing no regard for the terrain and the foggy weather. Sixteen-year old Nimesha Thisari was one of the dead. She was to take her Ordinary Level Exam in December. Also in our area, last November, a bus skidded off the road and crashed into a telephone post on the Welimada-Haputale road injuring 23 passengers.

On July 18 2013, 48-year-old Priyadarshani Gunawardena was on her way to work at a bank in Kollupitiya. She was thrown from the footboard of a speeding bus and run over by another speeding bus. She died of cerebral injuries.

Traffic Police said that from January to October 2013 there were 2184 accidents involving private buses and 592 accidents involving SLTB vehicles. Fatalities occurred in 186 of the accidents. There were fatalities in 157 accidents involving private buses and 29 involving SLTB buses. Private bus accidents injured 1009 people and 323 people were injured in SLTB accidents. About 18,000 of the 23,000 buses in the country are private buses.

Various explanations and remedies have been put forward but there seems little hope of improvement.

Some claim that the root problem is lack of timetables. This, it is argued, has led to bus drivers competing for passengers, thereby creating an unsafe environment. Gemunu Wijeratne, president of the Private Bus Owners’ Association, says: “The buses are regulated by the National Transportation Commission (NTC) or provincial authorities. However, both these bodies have failed to provide us with timetables. We have gone to courts regarding this and the Supreme Court has ordered them to formulate timetables. Even though the order was given five years ago no one has looked into the matter”.

Professor Amal Kumarage, a former chairman of the NTC, said that there was a dire need for “demand-based scheduling” where there was a ratio between buses and passengers. “If the timetables are corrected there will be no speeding and more responsible driving as buses won’t be competing to pick up passengers”. Professor Kumarage said SLTB buses had better drivers, but with irregular scheduling, they had to compete with private buses and could be tempted to drive carelessly. It was not a private bus driver who threatened us the other day.

A Transport Ministry spokesman thought the timetable issue was a red herring. “Time Tables have already been implemented on some routes. However, what happens is that the buses take their own time picking up passengers and then start racing against each other to get the next turn. The cause of the problem is that there is no proper organisation. Most of them are only interested in earning a few rupees more at the end of the day”. Single owners finance most of these buses at high rates of interest. The drivers and the conductors have to hand over each day the amount demanded by owners – to cover their operational costs, interest rates and profits.

There have been suggestions of criminal or political involvement. GG Wimalasena, President of the Trincomalee District Private Bus Operators Association, said that criminals often controlled private bus fleets. Bus owners cannot choose their own drivers but have to employ those recommended by gang bosses. Gemunu Wijeratne said: “Thuggery and extortion from bus crews is rampant and our pleas to the authorities to remedy the situation have fallen on deaf ears”.

Current NTC Chairman, Roshan Gunawardena, claimed that private bus drivers have to pay a minimum of Rs 300 kappam on each of their turns, resulting in losses, and leading to poor service to commuters. He said that touts helping to load buses have political connections and no action is taken against them.

Mr Gunawardena conceded that complaints about bus services were increasing and averaged about 40 per day. He said that the NTC had already launched a pilot project to monitor bus services. “We can monitor the bus if it exceeds speed limits and also entertain complaints while the bus is plying and try to resolve some of the issues.” As this statement was made on April 1 2012 and two years later things are still getting worse, one is tempted to believe it was an April Fools’ Day hoax.

There are good ideas being floated. Mr Gunawardena himself said that the NTC had fixed GPS (Global Positioning Systems to about 200 private buses that the NTC head office in Narahenpita was monitoring. “Our target is for all private buses to have the GPS facility by the year end. The owner has to pay only Rs 10,000 while the balance Rs. 25,000 will be met by the NTC.” Was this target met by the end of 2012?

Drivers of petrol bowsers generally comport themselves like gentlemen of the road. They drive carefully and slowly and give way to other vehicles when they are labouring their way up steep inclines. Many of them have a phone number in a prominent position on the back of the vehicle with the message: “How is my driving?” Buses should bear a similar message. Three-wheelers often bear the phone number of the nearest police station. Buses should do the same. The NTC hotline number should be displayed on all bus stands and all buses.

Retired deputy inspector general of traffic police, Camillus R. Abeygoonawardena said: “At present there are only static policemen. Rarely does one see mobile police vehicles. There should be unmarked police vehicles observing violators with detection equipment such as video cameras. When they are close to the violator, they can place the police siren on top of the vehicle. This will create a fear psychosis among drivers…During my tenure I deployed only ten policemen in civvies but all bus drivers thought police officers were in almost all buses.” “Mystery shopping” was standard practice by the early 1940s as a way to measure employee integrity. Undercover police should travel on buses as “mystery passengers” to monitor standards.

In June 2013, Inspector General NK Illangakoon issued a directive to all police stations check the experience of private bus drivers, the validity of their driving licences, the condition of the vehicles and whether temporary drivers are being used. Police have been instructed to keep a close watch on whether private buses violate the law when they compete with each other on the roads.

Motor Traffic Commissioner General S.H. Harischandra said in February 2014 that a new law was expected in two months that would institute a separate category for driving licences for passenger transport.“Buses, three-wheelers, passenger transport vans and other vehicles will come under this category. Bus drivers will have to undertake compulsory training on first aid, technical areas and ethics.” Heretofore, there have been no checks done at all on the physical fitness of bus drivers. Will this be done? Let us see if the law is introduced. Let us see if it is enforced. Will the spot fines be derisory? What we require are not new laws, or expensive new machines but to ensure the existing laws are implemented by police using their eyes, ears and noses.