Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: road safety

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.


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.


Killer Buses

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

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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.





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