This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday May 22 2015
Several years ago, we became integrated into our local community because of tragedy. We were invited to a funeral house and were introduced to many of our fellow villagers and many bhikkhus. The dead young man had just won a place at an Australian university and was looking forward to a successful career in IT. He was to be best man at his friend’s wedding the next day. The two boys had been born on the same day and had been friends all their short lives. Born on the same day and died on the same day. They were on a motor bike going to Passara to do some last minute shopping when they encountered an out-of-control bus. The driver was in a hurry to overtake and the boys were killed instantly. Last minutes of promising lives. The parents were mad with grief. The father suddenly became an old man as all the hope and joy drained out of him.
Rich Countries, Poor Countries
Worldwide, there is a road accident death every 30 seconds and ten people are seriously injured. The WHO (World Health Organisation) expects the number of deaths to reach two million a year by 2030, up from 1.3m now. In poor and middle-income countries road deaths will match HIV/AIDS as a cause of death by 2030. In the very poorest, the WHO expects deaths almost to triple.
The rich countries have cut road deaths through higher vehicle standards and infrastructure investment. Simple and cheap safety measures also helped. Pavements and crossings were provided on roads used by pedestrians. Cyclists and pedestrians were separated from fast traffic. Governments enforced speeding and drunk-driving laws and hammered home the message about seat belts, helmets and mobile phones.
Canvassing for Ideas
On May 5 2015, I published an article in this paper about the carnage on Sri Lankan roads. I was particularly concerned about the reckless behaviour of bus drivers and the reluctance of traffic police to address that behaviour. After publication, I canvassed the opinion of many Sri Lankans at home and abroad.
One commenter told how his neighbour was driving carefully but was killed when a bus coming from behind chose the wrong time to overtake her. He had not seen the lorry coming towards him. When did see the lorry, he quickly cut back into his lane, crushing the lady’s car in the process as she did not have time to take evasive action, stop or slow down. She died on the spot. Even taking short journeys to do local shopping I witness many similar incidents and always feel lucky to get home alive. The sixteen-hour round trip to Colombo is a nightmare. You are not even safe if you stay indoors at home. On one Colombo trip, we saw a bus on its nose end in someone’s bedroom.
The response to my canvas was extremely impressive. In these follow-up articles, I will try to synthesise the astute comments about the cause of the problem and suggestions for possible practical solutions.
Private bus drivers behave more irresponsibly than drivers of other buses. It was ever thus. Before nationalisation, free market competition for the same routes caused a scramble for passengers, leading to brawls and stabbings.
The Ratnam Survey in 1948, the Sansoni Survey in 1954 and the Jayaratna Perera Survey in 1956 all concluded that nationalisation would bring a better service. Between 1958 and 1978, the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) was the nationalised enterprise providing all public bus transport in Sri Lanka. It was the largest omnibus company in the world – with about 7,000 buses and over 50,000 employees. The present number of buses in the fleet of the successor body, the SLTB, is only 4,500.
When the Premadasa government introduced privatisation, competition on the same routes returned. Currently, bus crews receive a percentage of profits so there is an incentive to overload and pick up too many passengers and run as many high-speed trips as possible.
Endemic National Character
Some of the people I canvassed cited national characteristics as part of the problem. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous – including this one”. I would be particularly wary of generalising about national character, and loth, as a guest in Sri Lanka, to pass judgement on the “Sri Lankan character”. However, my Sri Lankan friends are not so cautious. If I pointed to the success of Sweden and the Netherlands in drastically reducing road deaths, and suggest we might find some lessons, they would say one could not expect Sri Lankans to have the self-discipline of northern Europeans.
One Sri Lankan wrote: “It appears to be the dominant culture that no one is responsible or accountable for anything.” Another concurred: “We accept chaos. If you inspect the root cause of a traffic jam in Sri Lanka, you will find that it originates in something trivial, like people lacking courtesy, blocking the whole road. There is no sense of coexistence or co-operation. It is the same in banks and post offices. No queues. Everyone wants to be served first”.
Suspension of normal rules during wartime created a pathology of circumventing sensible codes of behaviour. People see politicians bending the rules and think they can do the same. Politicians and military had special privileges, let us all have them.
One commenter believed the Sri Lankan police force was corrupt and used torture as a routine procedure from its foundation in the 1860s when the force was an instrument of colonial control. It had been further “corrupted and deformed by thirty years of war”. It is now a security force and is incapable of carrying out normal police duties.
Many private buses are “owned” by police in the sense that a policeman or his relative is a silent partner of the people who operate the buses. It is a sort of protection racket; for a share of the profits, police turn a blind eye to unroadworthy vehicles and dangerous driving
One commenter was pessimistic about changing the culture because corruption ran through society right from the top. Another was more optimistic and chose to believe that not all police are corrupt and a Citizens’ Advocacy group could improve enforcement by targeting some of the more intelligent senior officers.
Impunity of Culprits
One respondent thought there were simple solutions available but the state had to be prepared to stand up to the transgressors. Private buses owners have connections with powerful politicians and their stooges. Police issued a circular that the spot-fine system for private buses would be scrapped and that all offenders would be hauled before the courts. Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne threatened an island wide strike and the circular was withdrawn.
Private Owners Victims?
Although many see private bus owners as the villains, they feel like victims. In April 2013, Wijeratne was threatening a strike if private bus owners were not allowed to increase fares. He said that normal private buses were incurring losses every day.
In May 2005, Wijeratne blamed the high accident rate on the government’s failure to prevent competing companies from plying the same routes at the same time. “I have proposed to the government and provincial authorities to introduce a regular timetable,”
On April 30 2015, Gemunu Wijeratne claimed that owners are required to give a monthly sum of Rs 17 billion to extortionists. He said that even though officials have been informed of this situation, the matter has been ignored. Wijeratne said that his association had also decided to complain to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption of Minister Ratnayaka’s allegedly questionable dealings with some bus owners.
Next week – what can be done?