Getting Death off our Roads Part 2
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday May 26 2015.The article was illustrated with this picture. I am not sure if the red stuff is blood or betel spit.
In a previous article in these pages, I wrote about the problem of killer buses in Sri Lanka and canvassed the opinions of Sri Lankans home and abroad.
Testing for Drugs and Alcohol
I had read that drink and drugs might be a contributory factor to the manic behaviour of some bus drivers. I had not realised that evidence for this came from the Private Bus Owners Association itself. In May 2010, Gemenu Wijeratne, president of the association, made the frightening statement: “We did a survey of buses operating in Colombo and found that about 30 percent of drivers smoked ganja or consumed liquor before operating their vehicles.” He said some bus drivers were even addicted to heroin, blaming them for the high rate of accidents. “We have asked the police… to step up detection because these drivers have given private buses a bad reputation,” So it is the fault of the police that his drivers are killing people because they are stoned out of their minds! Five years on, what has Wijeratne done to clean up his members’ act? Should not his association introduce some form of testing and discipline its own drivers and members?
One commenter on my previous article said that before privatisation a CTB certificate was highly prized, a CTB driver was a respected member of the community and drinking on duty and drug-taking was unheard of.
A recent survey by the IOH (Institute of Oral Health) found that 80% of the bus drivers in Maharagama and Dehiwala chew betel to keep themselves awake. Another survey showed that 70.40% of bus drivers in Jaffna chew betel. It is an offence under the Tobacco and Alcohol Act of 2006 to drive under the influence of drugs. Dr Hemantha Amarasinghe, IOH Head of Research believes that drivers should be banned from chewing betel because the combination of betel, areca nut, tobacco and slaked lime produces a “high” which puts drivers and passengers at risk.
One reader who commented on my previous article thought the current licensing system in Sri Lanka was merely a money-making scheme for the government. Licenses seem to be issued to all and sundry. The system should be started again from scratch. Drivers who already hold a licence should be retested free of charge.
In other countries, people wishing to work as drivers of vehicles that carry passengers have to have a special driving licence for which they have to pass a rigorous test, following intensive training. National Transport Commission (NTC) Chairman Renuka Perera said, in September 2014, that the NTC would in, 2015, introduce a special exam for bus drivers who would get a Public Transport Licence. When, on July 8 2014, the then transport minister Kumara Welgama introduced new rules in parliament, the UNP’s Ajith Mannapperuma objected to plans to renew licences every four years, claiming it was aimed at getting additional revenue for the government.
New guidelines should have been applied by January 1 2015.No one should drive a public service vehicle unless authorised by the Commissioner General under Section 128A of the Motor Traffic Act. Anyone driving a bus or school van needs to satisfy the Commissioner General that he has obtained two years driving experience. He also needs a medical certificate and proof that he has completed a first-aid course. He should not have a criminal record. Recent news reports suggest that the police are not enforcing these new rules.
Training of Drivers
One commenter suggested trainers could be found abroad. Providing a squad of indigenous Sri Lankan trainers will improve the nation’s employment situation. Training should be ongoing and include compulsory workshops for owners as well as drivers. Drivers could be made to attend twice a year a class on accountability and trust in order to sensitise them to their responsibilities. They should be educated to understand their moral responsibility to their passengers by being forced to watch images of road accidents involving dangerous driving of buses and studying the causes.
Some agreed with a point I made in my first article that errant drivers should be apprehended, taken to court and banned from driving. Others found this too draconian and preferred a demerit points system leading through suspension to eventual loss of licence.
Someone recommended a zero-tolerance approach. A zero tolerance policy imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. The theory in New York was that if you dealt with minor transgressions and did not tolerate vandalism or even dropping litter, greater crimes would also reduce. Not everyone believes that worked (see recent events in Baltimore) but that is another debate. In this context, the police should stop vehicles that appear to be unroadworthy; vehicles belching out black smoke; vehicles driven in an erratic fashion; vehicles infringing the rules, such as crossing the white line. Having stopped them, police should take effective action against them.
The theory is applicable to the context of bus accidents. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively; they are required to impose a pre-determined punishment regardless of, extenuating circumstances, or history or influence.
More than one person suggested that, as three-wheelers, motorcycles and buses make a disproportionate contribution to accidents, they should be segregated. Other countries have separate lanes for buses and cyclists. This improves the quality of the transport service for the public and makes it easier for buses to keep to timetable. It would be difficult to impose it up here on our narrow winding mountain roads. The roads are becoming narrower still because of frequent landslips and uprooting of trees. The RDA seems to be starting a process of road widening in this area.
One commenter suggested that Awareness Weeks should be established to educate the public about road safety, to teach them ways to monitor the crimes of bus drivers and how to report them. Schools should thoroughly teach children about road safety and they should be mobilised, through possibly the girl guides and boy scouts, to carry out intensive village advocacy. The aim would be to teach ordinary citizens how to whistle-blow about bad driving behaviour. The business community, via Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs and Rotary Associations, could play a part in awareness programmes and put pressure on bus owners to clean up their act. The High Priest at our local Buddhist temple is heavily involved in organising community projects, which include local Muslims, Hindus and Christians. A similar ecumenical approach throughout the country could address the problem of road safety.
There should be a hotline that people could call into (perhaps managed by popular radio stations) about driver transgressions. A Citizens’ Watch to put pressure on bus owners and the police. There should be a map of fatal incidents so that citizens can keep the police on their toes.
There is already an excellent website sharing videos of idiocy on the roads. https://www.facebook.com/srilankantrafficviolations
We need some serious deep investigative reporting to name and shame corrupt owners and demonstrate their links with politicos and police. The road safety message needs to expressed strongly in Sinhala and Tamil and not just in print. Are TV programmes dealing with this problem? Can any showbiz celebrities or cricketers be persuaded to help? During the six years I was writing a monthly column for LMD, I frequently suggested covering the topic but the idea was always rejected. I haven’t seen features on road deaths in business magazines like Echelon and LMD. There is a huge economic burden caused by road accidents. Are these magazines reaching out to the business community for solutions?
Next week – how they do things elsewhere.