Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Sri Lanka Transport Board

Getting Death off Our Roads Part 3

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday June 5 2015.

busespart3

Economic Cost

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?

Ireland

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.”

 

Zero Casualties

 

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.Colman's Column3

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.

 

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