According to iRAP (the International Road Assessment Programme) road deaths and injuries, because of medical bills, care, lost output and vehicle damage, cost 2% of GDP for high-income countries and 5% of GDP for middle- and low-income countries —$1.9 trillion a year globally.
Road accidents are the main cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds. A dead or maimed 17-year-old costs much more in lost earnings than an 80-year-old. Avi Silverman of the FIA Foundation, (http://www.fiafoundation.org/about-us) says a victim’s family is often plunged into poverty for generations.
From 1977 to 2007, 120,848 accidents were reported in Sri Lanka 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.
Travel and Terror
Although terrorist bombs are no longer destroying buses, buses themselves are making Sri Lankan roads deadly and terrorising the public. There was an interesting double interview in the Sunday Observer on June 1 2008. SSP Ranjith Gunasekara, police Media Spokesman, and Gemenu Wijeratne, spokesman for private bus owners, were asked a number of questions about the safety of bus passengers during the LTTE bombing campaign. Wijeratne said: “I am happy that the private bus sector is not that much threatened, comparatively. If we consider the past bomb explosions, the majority of the buses were Sri Lanka Transport Board buses and not private buses…On our part we are always highly vigilant and all the time we strongly emphasize the bus owners and conductors should keep their eyes open! And of course they do it with a sense of commitment.”
It is a pity that there is not a similar sense of vigilance and commitment to passenger safety in peacetime. During wartime, it was a common to see buses halted at the roadside while police searched for bombs. One never sees buses stopped for being unroadworthy, belching out black smoke, crossing the white line. One sees many three-wheelers, motor bikes and private vehicles being stopped for no prior cause. Why not buses?
Richer countries have cut road deaths more successfully than developing or middle-income countries through higher vehicle standards and infrastructure investment. Governments enforced speeding and drunk-driving laws and hammered home the message about seat belts, helmets and mobile phones.
The Republic of Ireland once had one of the worst accident records in Europe. More than 23,600 people have died on Irish roads since records began in 1959. That is the equivalent of the entire population of the town of Tralee, County Kerry. From 1977 to 2013, 76,586 people received serious, life-changing injuries. Reforms have reduced the number of deaths considerably. In 2012 there were 161 people killed on the Republic’s roads, the lowest on record. The number of people killed on the State’s roads increased for the second year in a row in 2014 a rise of 6 to 196. However, in 1997 there were nearly 500 deaths. In 1978, there were 628.
The Road to Hell
I often say that the road to hell is paved with false analogies. Although the island of Ireland is the same size as Sri Lanka, it is very thinly populated. The Republic of Ireland’s population is 4.58 million, while Sri Lanka’s is 20.48 million. There are low traffic intensities on many Irish roads. Nevertheless, perhaps Sri Lanka could learn something from the Irish experience.
The Irish Government Strategy for Road Safety 1998-2002 says: “Human action is a contributory factor in over 90% of road accidents. The principal emphasis of all road safety strategies must therefore be on improving road user behaviour. This behaviour needs to be informed and trained, and to be modified, so as to improve interaction between road users, to ensure consideration for others and to reduce risk. In this way a culture of road use is created that is both precautionary and pro-active in relation to road safety”.
Professor Fred Wegman
Professor Fred Wegman advises the European Commission and many national governments on road safety. In 2002, he wrote a report on the Irish strategy. He said an “important question is whether Irish society is prepared to accept a higher level of enforcement…Are they prepared to change their own behaviour, and are they prepared to accept (far-reaching) government road safety measures? Influential social groups could be invited (and perhaps forced in the position) to show the courage of their convictions: road safety would then simply have to be defined as a top priority. Recent research suggests that the Irish population would support this point of view.”
Sweden’s roads are the world’s safest. Although the number of cars in circulation and the number of miles driven have both doubled since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths during the same period. In 1997, the Swedish parliament wrote into law a “Vision Zero” plan, promising to eliminate road fatalities and injuries altogether. Sweden builds roads with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children younger than seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.
What to do in Sri Lanka?
Perhaps the government should commission the FIA Foundation to undertake a study or invite Professor Wegman to Sri Lanka. Wegman asked if Irish society was prepared to press for a higher level of enforcement. We might ask the same question about Sri Lanka. The government has to show willing and society needs to put pressure on government to take effective action.
There will be immediate costs. The current court system is already overloaded and will collapse completely dealing with a more pro-active policy. Should there be separate system outside conventional courts? How about a digitised fine system linked to payment of utility bills?
There are costs in doing nothing. Is this something that the business community should be taking on board? Should business magazines, chambers of commerce, Lions Clubs and Rotary Associations be raising awareness?
Among many helpful suggestions I received: Allocate a single bus route to a single private company. Scheduled departures and arrivals would reduce races even if more than one company were plying the same route. Provide a daily map online of all accidents. Compile a blacklist of cops on the take and owners doing the bribing. Owners as well as drivers should be punished. Bus owners need to be brought before a public forum by a neutral body to formulate a solution. Organise meetings of concerned citizens with drivers and owners and senior police officers.
Is the Government Doing Something?
TMKB Tennakoon, Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order recently announced 790 people had been killed on Sri Lankan roads between January and April this year. “The number of accidents reflects badly on the country’s image”. He said that instructions were being sent out to all OICs to train all police personnel to book traffic offenders. More ticket books would be printed. For three months, all police would be expected to address the problem. A senior officer said this would place unacceptable burdens on staff deployed for other duties such as crime prevention and investigation. He thought the solution was to train more traffic police.
Someone commented on my previous article that we should bear in mind that transport fares in Sri Lanka are cheap so perhaps things are not so bad. It seems that life is cheap too. Road safety must be a top priority. Whatever about the country’s image, this carnage and waste of human life must stop.