Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: road accidents

Getting Death off our Roads Part 2

Colman's Column3

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.

picpart2rev

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.

Licensing System

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.

Zero Tolerance

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.

Bus Lanes

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.

Public Awareness

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

Media

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.

 

Death Coaches

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday May 5 2015

Colman's Column3

Horrendous bus crashes are not newsworthy – happens all the time.

On April 16, I posted on Facebook. “We never hear sirens here. In the past hour we have heard lots of sirens.”  What is going on?  There have been no terrorist incidents since the LTTE were defeated in May 2009. Were the Tigers back again? Were Rajapaksa loyalists staging a coup?

I Googled  for news and found this: “Thirty seven persons suffered injuries when a private bus veered off the road and toppled down a steep slope in the 2nd mile post area along the Maddolsima-Passara road. According to the police, 23 women were among the injured. According to our correspondent, 13 of the injured who were in critical condition were transferred to the Badulla General Hospital. Further investigations into the accident have been launched by the police.”Local people told  us that  five people died instantly at the scene. I have not seen fatalities mentioned elsewhere.  I have not been able to find out anything else on the internet.

Statistics

According to the Ministry of Transport, there were 2,436 deaths on the roads of Sri Lanka in 2014. The total number of road accidents in that year was 28,012. Of those accidents, 9,166 involved motor cycles and 6,467 involved three-wheelers. One can understand why there are so many traffic police stopping motorcycles and three-wheelers. However, 2,936 accidents in 2014 involved private buses. Motorcycles and three-wheelers are a nuisance but a bus driven recklessly at top speed by a drunk can cause a lot more damage. A  Police Media Spokesperson said that the possibility of small vehicles falling prey to large ones had increased. According to a 2002 report from Peradeniya University, on average, road traffic accidents killed six people every day in Sri Lanka. In Western Province, 17% of accidents involved buses.

Demon Bus Drivers

There are more than 21,000 private buses and 3,000 state-run buses. According to police statistics, from January 1 to July 31 2014, private bus drivers were responsible for 2,733 cases of dangerous and negligent driving, 2,260 speeding offences, 367 drunk-driving arrests and 2,117 cases of unauthorised parking or stopping away from bus halts.  3,944 violations concerned buses operating without insurance and licence. Traffic experts say that the problem with private bus drivers is much worse than official figures indicate.

Two Boys

Several years ago, we became integrated into our local community because of tragedy. We were invited to a funeral home and were introduced to many of our fellow villagers and many bhikkus. 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.

What to do?

The UN General Assembly proclaimed 2011 to 2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety.  We are now four years in to the Decade. Had you noticed?  Among the recommendations are: establishing a lead agency for road safety in the country involving partners from a range of sectors; encouraging the development and adoption of model road safety legislation and sustained or increased enforcement of road safety laws and standards; public awareness and education; reduce drinking and driving and speeding. Former National Transport Commission Chairman and senior lecturer at Moratuwa University, Professor Amal Kumarage said that action in Sri Lanka under the Decade of Road Safety in 2012 has been limited to the launching ceremony.

Suggested Improvements

To this observer, bowser drivers seem to be the Gentlemen of the Roads of Sri Lanka.  Perhaps bowser drivers drive at a more sedate pace because they are carrying highly inflammable material. However, bus drivers should remember, when racing  to the next stop, that they are carrying highly fragile women and children. Most bowsers have a phone number on the back inviting other road users to make complaints about bad driving. Private buses should be made to do the same.

Police should ride in buses as “mystery passengers” or bus marshals, reporting traffic violations. Everybody has a mobile phone these days – passengers and other road users should photograph the number plate and driver of errant vehicles and report violations to the police.

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. Do not hold your breath.

Police should stop all buses being driven dangerously or belching out black smoke. They should test the driver for narcotics and alcohol and check his licence and insurance. He should be taken to court and banned from driving if found guilty.

Police issued a circular ordering that all offenders would taken to court. Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne threatened an island-wide strike and the police withdrew the circular. Police hope to issue a new circular to allow them to charge and take to court bus drivers guilty of traffic violations that are specific to passenger transport vehicles.

Police Can Stop Buses

Before May 2009, it was a common sight on the roads of Sri Lanka to see passengers lined up at the roadside while police searched buses. Academics may rack their brains to find a solution to road deaths, but one simple fact presents itself to this non-academic.  Occam’s Razor – police should be stopping buses. Under normal circumstances, one never sees police stopping buses. They have stopped my car without prior cause on many occasions to check my licence and insurance. While they are doing so, they are oblivious of badly maintained private buses careering down the road belching out black smoke in a race to get to the next stop before a rival.

A Special Police Team was deployed during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year from 11 to 16 April 2015. In the first news reports, I noticed that three wheeler drivers and  motorcyclists predominated and there were no bus drivers. However, the final count was 1,122 drivers charged with  drunk driving; 600 motorcyclists, 404 trishaw drivers, 33 motor car drivers, 17 van drivers, 37 lorry drivers and five private passenger bus drivers.

Counting the Cost

Road safety gets too low a profile in public debate. A respected public figure seemed rather dismissive about the fact that I was writing about buses. I contacted a Facebook friend who had been posting pictures of wrecked buses asking for his views on road safety. He thought that people were currently distracted by the political situation and the debate over the constitution and not concerned about road safety.

He told me the pictures he posted were of bus bombings by the LTTE in mid 2000. I pointed out to him that although bombs are no longer destroying buses, buses themselves are making our roads deadly. From 1977 to 2007, 120,848 accidents were reported in which 40,000 people died and 370,000 were injured. More than 75% of road deaths were from the age group 20 to 55 years – family  breadwinners. The estimated cost of road trauma in Sri Lanka was Rs. 10.25 billion, nearly 2% of GNP, as long ago as 2001.

A “concerned citizen” wrote to a newspaper: “Private buses seem to be run entirely to suit the owners, drivers and conductors. The passengers are important only till they pay their fare. After that what happens to them is nobody’s business… I am told that the police are also in tow with these maniac drivers. You never see police officers pulling up bus drivers…. Probably they are getting a cut from the bus drivers, so they turn a blind eye to their faults. I do hope this letter will catch the eye of the authorities and make them catch both the errant bus drivers as well as the misguided police officers who are behind such men.”

“Concerned citizen” wrote in 2002. Researching Sri Lankan newspapers back to the year of the Peradeniya report, I was depressed that people are still saying the same things thirteen years on, and nothing has changed.

 

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