ARE THERE DEMONS BEHIND THE WHEEL?

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2017-11-14

Every day in Sri Lanka, families lose their loved ones to road accidents at an alarming rate.

The latest tragedy that caught the imagination of the public was the death of a teenage schoolboy in Rajagiriya, and injuries to six others when the two vehicles they were travelling in appeared to lose control and hit walls.

In the vehicles were students from a leading Colombo school who had been preparing for an event and were being dropped off to their homes just before 2 a.m. yesterday.

Just days before that, a speeding Jaffna-bound private bus trying to overtake a three-wheeler on a narrow bridge at Madurankuliya, flew off the road and toppled.

Six people died and more than forty people were badly injured.

We Sri Lankans like to boast that we are the product of thousands of years of advanced civilization,but get behind the wheel and Sri Lankans become uncultured boors.

Our roads are chaotic, jam-packed with vehicles, with motorcycles and three-wheelers weaving their way around and trying to get into every gap in traffic. Drivers are aggressive and impolite and one wonders whether they ever went for training and who on earth gave them a drivers' licence. Very few, if any, follow the correct lanes.

No wonder we have a very high level of deaths and injuries on the roads. Currently a Sri Lankan dies every three-and-a-half-hours and more than three thousand have perished on our roads as the year draws to an end.

Sri Lanka is one of the few developing countries in Asia which is seeing an increase in fatal accidents in recent years.

The number of road deaths per 100,000 people has risen from 10 in 2011 to 12.5 last year. This trend, most experts say will continue. The total number of road accidents have not risen by much, averaging around 35,000 incidents per year since 2006, but the number of deaths per year has risen from 2,238 in 2006 to 3,003 up to November according to the Ministry of Transport.

Former Deputy Inspector General of Police, Traffic and Road Safety, Camillus Abeygunawardene in a recent series of articles points out that the road network is inadequate for the volume of traffic and the mix of vehicles that are out there.

He writes that there is an 'urgent need for the State to improve road conditions,' and recommends that the Government discourage 'unsafe modes' of travel and bring in better public transport networks to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

He has proposed a number of changes that Municipalities across the country should enforce to improve safety and reduce congestion. One idea is for a ban on three-wheelers picking up passengers from the roadside. He proposes that tuk-tuk stands be set up where passengers can hail a three-wheeler.

The majority of the vehicles plying on our roads are what are considered 'unsafe' such as three-wheelers and motorcycles.

The scary sight of two or sometimes three schoolchildren perched precariously on a motorcycle, while the mother or the father riding as the bike weaves through heavy downtown traffic is common. Many of these children do not wear helmets or only wear obviously fake helmets made of plastic on their heads.

A third of all fatalities are of people riding motorcycles ,while another third are pedestrians.

The Government wants to set-up a three-wheeler regulatory authority, but let's hope that it has sufficient powers to ensure driver training is carried out professionally and adequate safety standards are met. It is common for three-wheeler owners in Sri Lanka to modify the front end of the vehicle to increase its maneuverability by reducing the distance between the driver and front wheel, but that reduces the safety factor.

We need decisive regulatory action from the different levels of Government to make our roads safer.

But the key issue is the enforcement of the law, regardless of who commits traffic offences. In a UN ranking of enforcement standards, Sri Lanka gets a low 4 out of 10, while Singapore, which has seen a decline in fatal accidents gets 8 out of 10 on the same scale.

Above all, it is also up all of us that when we get on the road behind the wheel, we don't break the law, and be well-mannered and think of the safety of our passengers as well as everybody else using the road.

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