ROADS IN SRI LANKA - A MATTER OF LIFE & DEATH
Camillus R. Abegoonewardena, former Police DIG Traffic, gives an insight as to what ails our roads
This month’s ‘PRO-FILE’ has changed from the usual format. Let me introduce a unique personality: Camillus R. Abegoonewardena, former Police DIG Traffic Administration & Road Safety, who did yeoman service during his tenure – the present lot of so-called ‘Traffic Experts’ better take a leaf from his tried & tested commonsensical approach!
In fact we held him in such high esteem [we still do Camillus!] that our Editor-in-Chief Nimal Wimalasuriya handed over the first-ever copy of MOTOR magazine to Mr. Camillus R. Abegoonewardena, the then DIG Traffic back in 1995.
So in honour of this great gentleman, we are reproducing his recent piece: ‘Roads in Sri Lanka – a matter of Life & Death’ written for your favourite MOTOR magazine as this topic which impacts ALL road users has been, is now and will be of great significance to ALL road users as ‘Road Deaths’ horrendously continue unabated, morphing into a national catastrophe, sadly!
A Sri Lankan dies every 3 ½ hours in road accidents - western province continue to be most unsafe
Road accident statistics compiled by the computer division of the Traffic Police reveals that a Sri Lankan is killed in a road accident every 3 ½ hours, and twice that number are critically injured. This is a clear indication that road travel is becoming increasingly dangerous and hazardous. Compared to road deaths in the pre 1970’s, the risk of road deaths faced by Sri Lankan’s have nearly trebled. Such a tragic scenario is inevitable with higher volumes and variety of traffic moving on an inadequate road network.
The capacity of the existing road network is totally incapable of accommodating the varying demands, volumes and mix of road usage. There is a dire need for the state to bring about an overall improvement to the road network. This is to be complimented by an integrated road safety enforcement system. This should be coupled with an efficient and a convenient public transport mode. These measures will discourage the use of unsafe private modes of travel which would not only ease traffic but minimize road traffic accidents as well.
The above issues are compounded by several other factors such as ineffective and lack of uniformity in law enforcement strategies which are presently executed with too much emphasis on traditional methods of static law enforcement. These are totally outdated and incapable of meeting the desired objectives and challenges at hand. An integrated road safety infringement enforcement system needs to be introduced to drastically change driver behavior as was successfully introduced in the mid - Nineteen Nineties in Victoria, Australia. Singapore and Malaysia are two other countries which brought in such integrated road safety & enforcement campaigns in the 1980’s - 1990’s.
Tougher Laws – Need of the Hour
Today’s challenges need law enforcement to be backed with hi-tech facilities such as speed cameras, red light cameras, CCTV cameras at critical locations. They should also be backed by mobile enforcement adopting covert and overt enforcement strategies along with anti-booze operations carried out on a 24 hour basis to give the desired momentum. There is also a greater need for tougher laws with rigorous penalties for specific offences on high risk driver category by introducing the driver improvement point system (DIPS) to effectively promote safe driving, curb accidents & reduce carnage on roads irrespective of who breaks the law.
Since Three Wheelers form a sizeable component in our vehicle fleet and their driving characteristics to say the least is most incomprehensible, there is a pressing need to enact a rigid “Three Wheeler Regulation” to mould their “happy go lucky and uncaring ways at the wheel”. This would greatly influence & enhance safety and bring about greater order on roads.
A complete ban on hailing for three wheelers on roadsides in the Colombo and Greater Colombo region should be the top priority of the authorities. Picking up passengers should be confined to Three Wheeler stands only - dropping off passengers may continue to be at the request of the passenger so long as they do not violate basic road rules. This regulation is presently enforced in New Delhi and many other capitals and its introduction in the Metropolitan City of Colombo will be timely and most prudent. To implement such regulations there is a dire need for political will as well as community based support.
There is also an urgent and a pressing need for effective road safety awareness campaigns/programs targeting different users at risk. This initiative should be sponsored or backed by all stake holder’s including Insurance Companies, Agents/Dealers of motor vehicles, Media institutions, all agencies dealing in the motor trade and of course with the State taking the lead role in backing an effective campaign strategy, as accident costs are a tremendous burden to society in human terms and a huge loss to the country in economic terms.
Since pedestrians continue to be very vulnerable over the years with increased levels of motorization there is an urgent need to enhance their safety. Unfortunately too little or no attention to safeguard their vulnerability is sufficiently visible. There is an urgent need to look in to the needs of the walking environment by providing paved side-walks with guard railings and where appropriate, escalators/elevators at under passes, overpasses needs to be provided at locations where there is a high demand for pedestrian movement. Some measures have been introduced recently by the authorities in Colombo with signalized pedestrian crossings and well demarcated crossings but there is a greater need to enhance safety of pedestrians.
Callous Disrespect for Road Rules
Besides the above mentioned factors, the increasing trend in road accidents could also be attributed to the users themselves for their callous disrespect for road rules and road manners which have not been inculcated or ingrained in to them at early stages. Their contributions to road accidents in large measure go unnoticed by the enforcement authorities to a great extent and prosecution is heavily weighted on motorist’s lapses. Most existing roads also need to be traffic engineered with built-in safety features, improved intersection designs and improved street furniture to discipline and to safeguard road users. Such in-built safety features would help to overcome some of the existing behavioral patterns on roads and simultaneously bring about greater safety whilst facilitating a smooth and orderly traffic flow in critical areas.
Another approach to reduce accidents is for drivers and riders to be trained to adopt a more responsible attitude to the task of driving and riding with a sound understanding of the hazards prevalent on roads. Traffic conditions and the road environment do not remain stationery, they change continuously and rapidly. This requires a driver to constantly review his driving practices and improve his skills and technique to the demands of traffic.
To most, the driving license is the ultimate and neither ones’ knowledge nor skills mature beyond. But the challenge of driving requires perfecting one’s driving and safety attitudes continuously to avoid being involved in a road tragedy and to make driving more pleasant as well. To this end more comprehensive driver training programs should be introduced to incorporate defensive driving techniques and inculcate road manners & safety attitudes. Along with these a more rigid standards of evaluating learner drivers should be established. These to be combined with advance driver training and re-training programs by the authorities along with other stake holders inclusive of the corporate sector as a social responsibility. These programs on driving and riding should also be extended to senior students of schools as well; as they are invariably the drivers and riders of the future. Otherwise present attitudes and standards in road behavior may continue from one generation to another with tragic consequences.
Factors that determine or lead to road accidents are numerous and varied. They may be attributed to inconsiderate and aggressive driving attitudes, road rage, excessive speed, inappropriate speeds, failure to judge speed and distance of other vehicles especially when overtaking, over estimating one’s skills and abilities. In many accidents; emotional factors, driving absentmindedly, physical alertness, night fatigue, failure to indicate ones’ change of direction by means of signals and poor observation of the road scene around are some factors that lead to road accidents with many ending in tragic consequences.
A general analysis of road deaths indicate that alcohol impairment, driving at high speeds or inappropriate speeds, fatigue and lack of alertness collectively or singularly were major contributory causes.
A way to overcome most driving violations committed by drivers is to introduce tougher laws and road regulations with severe penalties combined with stringent law enforcement; enforced in a uniform manner. Law Enforcement primarily should serve as a deterrent by increasing the road user’s perception of the likely risk of being apprehended by strategies adopted than by the number of infringement notices issued. At the same time penalties should be so structured that road user’s fear to commit violations because of the serious consequences one has to encounter.
Road deaths in provinces
Provinces wise, the Western Province continues to lead in road accidents and road deaths. This had been the norm over the years due to rapid urbanization and due to other prevailing factors and features in this region. Besides rapid motorization in recent years, the province continues to have the highest population; and with 60% or more of the total vehicle fleet circulating within the province for multitude of reasons. Also over 60% of high profile industries, commercial and school entities are located in this region thus generating the circulation of a very high percentage of traffic. This coupled with inadequacies in the road network adds to congestion and accidents in the region. A primary reason for greater number of accidents occurring in this Province is also the fact that all national roads A1 to A 4 to other Provinces pass through the busiest town centers of this province to and from the City Centre.
North Western Province comes in as the 2nd highest in road deaths with 415 killed in 393 fatal accidents. This heavy toll is perhaps due to a significant component of vehicles of every description traversing through this province on a daily basis on commercial and leisure trips to the North, North Central, Central and to the Eastern regions. The Province also has a heavy concentration of motor cycles and Three Wheelers that contribute in large measure to the high rate of accidents. The roads in this province as well as in other provinces do not have safe overtaking lanes or adequate width for safe overtaking which often compels or leads drivers to take risks when overtaking. Most roads in this province also do not provide adequate safety features for Pedestrians and cyclists which make them more vulnerable. A general observation for the high rate of accidents on roads in this region could be attributed to excessive speeds and risky overtaking maneuvers often caused by undue delays encountered by volumes of commercial traffic which traverse through the trunk roads on a daily basis. This trend will continue until expressways become a reality to the distant regions in the country in the future.
Roads in the Southern Province come next in the fatality rate with 319 fatal accidents claiming 343 victims. One salient feature observed is a significant drop in serious head on collisions on Galle road in Police areas of Wadduwa, Kalutara, Ambalangoda, Induruwa and Aluthgama after the southern expressway came in to existence. Perhaps road widening and the introduction of center medians and centre road markings on this stretch of road had also made a significant contribution to this reduction. There is a heavy concentration of accidents and road deaths on Galle road beyond Matara and on the other interior roads within the province. This province too has a sizeable percentage of motor cycles, bicycles and Three Wheelers which have contributed or compounded to the increased road accidents in the region.
High risk category
The most vulnerable category of road user’s on our roads last year and in recent years had been the motor cycles. Motor cycles in the Asian Pacific region have accelerated motorization as well as road deaths significantly. This trend has been the norm over the years with motor cycles and mopeds becoming a popular mode of transport both here and in the Asian region based on affordability and the thrill of speed it brings to the youthful riders.
Death toll of motor cycle riders and pillion riders last year was a staggering 1017 victims and 917 deaths in 2014. Injury wise too motor cyclists also rank the 2nd highest in road accidents. This category also forms the largest percentage of the vehicle fleet in Sri Lanka in recent years. Presently they account for approximately 51% of the total registered vehicle fleet in the country.
Motor cycles are generally on the high risk threshold with little or no protection except the head gear which most often is not worn securely ending in fatal injuries. In most remote areas they yet continue to ride without protective helmets due to lack of enforcement. Their visibility or conspicuity by day needs to be enhanced by getting them to switch on headlights in dipped position or by wearing reflective jackets or at best colored clothing to be more visible to other users. On the other hand this category receives little or no training from qualified instructors. Testing for their competency needs to be at much higher level than at present. Most of them lack the fundamentals of safe riding and the requisite knowledge on road rules, road manners and courtesy. Perhaps most of them have a tendency to ride motor cycles in the same stride they rode pedal cycles in their early days in life and thus pose a grave danger to others on roads.
Setting up - Off road driver/rider training centers is the need of the hour based on the training criteria on models presently adopted in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Japan
Pedestrians form the next highest category with 777 deaths last year. This increasing trend had been the norm in our country over the years. Strangely in spite of walking being a basic means of travel in our country, road authorities, provincial and local authorities have not given walking and safe crossing the due attention when planning and designing of roads in urban centers. It may sound a huge investment but its benefits both in human and monetary terms will be a long term investment strategy bringing in high returns.
Road deaths by day of the week
Statistics-wise there is no significant variation in road deaths during the days of the week on a country wide basis. Analysis of road deaths clearly demands the Police to initiate a high level of enforcement throughout the week, probably giving greater emphasis to certain high risk locations on national roads. Saturdays and Mondays recorded the highest with 378 and 382 fatal accidents. These figures when compared to other days of the week reveal no marked variation in fatalities. During the last 3 decades there had been a significant increase in road fatalities and deaths on week-ends. Trunk roads generally have a higher rate of accidents during week-ends due to increased demands for leisure travel to distant provinces and perhaps also due to special or seasonal events taking place in these regions. This necessitate Police divisions to do an in depth analysis of accidents & fatalities occurring on main trunk roads especially on week-ends and execute intensive enforcement strategies deviating from present traditional static enforcement with a view to lessen this trend.
Hit & run fatalities
Fatalities involving hit & run vehicles are rapidly increasing year after year. The victims in these tragedies are mostly pedestrians. Most of them become victims of hit & run on lonely stretches of urban or rural roads or during hours of darkness on trunk roads. Pedal cyclists and motor cyclists form the next category of victims in the hit & run category. In 2014 the number killed in Hit & Run accidents was 92. Of them 76 were pedestrians. In 2015 those killed in Hit & Run accidents amounted to 113 of them 86 were pedestrians, 14 motor cyclists and 13 were Pedal cyclists.
In Hit & Run fatalities the party responsible evades reporting the accident perhaps due to the driver being under the influence of alcohol, or perhaps not possessing a valid license. Sometimes the location being a remote area or the stretch of road being in total darkness the offending driver takes the risk to get away unnoticed to escape the consequences. Such tragic accidents are a sad reflection on our society.
What is more sad and disturbing is the follow-up investigations by the Police which in most instances are carried out in a very superficial manner. The required follow up investigation procedures laid down are not carried out in the desired and diligent manner thus giving abundant opportunities for the offenders to escape the law, unless in instances where there is positive clue left at the scene, or a good Samaritan gives a clue to identify the offending vehicle which is very rare. Hit & Run accidents need to be scrutinized and followed up more diligently and delicately by the Police since the offenders by their actions throw a serious challenge to the Police by circumventing the law. Now with the CCTV technology presently in operation in many business locations in all towns, Police should be able to use them to their best advantage to track down the vehicle involved by using these recordings to their best advantage as often done in major crime investigations.
There is also a dire need to impose deterrent penalties on Hit & Run offenders to minimize this trend. It would be most appropriate, if such offences are made non-bail able by law as well to serve as a deterrent.
This horrendous trend in road accidents will continue unless the authorities responsible and the State in particular offer safety on roads a higher priority in the government’s political agenda.