Roads in Sri Lanka - A matter of life & death

A Sri Lankan dies every 3 ½ hours in road accidents

Western Province continue to be most unsafe


by Camillus R Abeygoonewardena

Former DIG in-charge of Traffic Administration and Road Safety

A Sri Lankan dies every 3 ½ hours in road accidents

Road accident statistics compiled by the computer division of the Traffic Police reveals that a Sri Lankan is killed in a road accident every three and a half hours and two 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 has 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. This will discourage the use of unsafe private modes of travel, which would not only ease traffic but also minimize road traffic accidents.

The above issues are compounded by several other factors such as ineffective and lack of uniformity in law enforcement strategies, which at present are 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 These are totally outdated and incapable of meeting the desired objectives and challenges at hand.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 – 1990s 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. Today’s challenges needs law enforcement to be backed with hi-tech facilities such as speed cameras, red light cameras, and 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 a 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.

Three-wheeler Regulation

Three-wheelers form a sizeable component in our vehicle fleet, and their driving characteristics, to say the least, are 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 and 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 at present 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 into the needs of the walking environment by providing- paved sidewalks with guard railings and where appropriate, escalators/elevators at underpasses, 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.

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 and prosecution is heavily weighted on motorist’s lapses. Most existing roads also needs 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.

More responsible driving

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 stationary, 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 one’s 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 and safety attitudes. Along with these 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 stakeholders 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 the 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 the speed and distance of other vehicles, especially when overtaking, and over-estimating one’s skills and abilities. In many road accidents, emotional factors, driving absent mindedly, 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 them with many ending in tragic consequences.

A general analysis of road deaths indicates that alcohol consumption, driving at high speeds or inappropriate speeds, fatigue and lack of alertness collectively or singularly were major contributory causes.

(To be continued)

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