Transport safety and security
The death of six persons in a boating tragedy at the Mahesen Tank in
Welikanda last week again brings into focus the need for more stringent
transport safety regulations in this country.
This columnist has repeatedly called for the introduction of
mandatory life jacket regulations for the leisure-boating industry.
The simple truth is that life jackets, had they been available and
worn, would have saved six precious lives including that of a toddler.
Alas, it was not to be.
How many more tragedies like this will we have to endure before life
jackets are made compulsory for all boating trips, regardless of whether
it is in the ocean or an inland water reservoir? The answer should be
none, for it is not too late to introduce such laws.
The biggest reason for deaths on our waterways and the high seas is
the almost complete lack of safety procedures and equipment.
The lack of flotation devices - especially lifejackets - is worrying
to say the least. There is no doubt about it - lifejackets can save
lives. All you have got to is wear one before embarking on a boat voyage
and should the worst happen, it will keep you afloat until help arrives.
First of all, the leisure boating industry has to be licensed and
regulated. All boat owners and operators should adhere to safety
regulations stipulated by the authorities. In the first instance, the
boats should be in a sound mechanical condition. Second, they should not
be overloaded. If a boat is specified for 15 persons, it is the maximum
number of persons that should be allowed on board. There should be no
Third, there should be life jackets for the passengers and crew as
well as an inflated wheel on board. Boats that do not pass these tests
should not be allowed in the water. A two-way radio system is also
ideal, but may not always be practical given the costs. Boat operators
should also have a homing beacon as well as a visual device, such as
flares to attract attention in an emergency.
The authorities will have to consider the financial implications of
such measures. The Government could perhaps subsidise the purchase of
lifejackets by boat operators and local companies could be given a
contract to manufacture high quality lifejackets, thus saving foreign
I have highlighted this issue again to also focus on the need to have
an authority for transport safety in Sri Lanka - an institution on the
lines of the National Transportation Safety Board of the United States
The NTSB minutely analyses each accident - be it an air crash or a
three-car pile-up - and gives recommendations to avoid such accidents in
the future. Indeed, their recommendations have saved countless lives
over the years.
In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, major accidents get banner headlines
in the newspapers, the police investigate the case for a while and then,
everything is forgotten. Police can investigate certain aspects of an
accident (e.g.: whether a driver was under the influence of liquor), but
they are not experts at homing in other factors that may have led to an
accident, such as the mechanical condition of the vehicle(s) involved.
This is why there is ample room for an institution such as a transport
In tandem with the Police, they can probe all aspects of an accident
and better still, recommend measures and laws that would be needed to
curb such accidents in the future. Experts in aviation, maritime and
road safety should be drawn into this organization.
Their expertise should be harnessed to prevent or at least minimize
the number of accidents in the future. Yes, some accidents may be
inevitable, but there are many others that can easily be prevented. And
strict laws do help prevent accidents.
For proof, we do not have to look beyond the highly effective helmet
law. Today, no motorcyclist dares to ride without a helmet on even for a
short distance. Even more than the prospect of getting fined by Police
or a court of law, the riders are by now well aware of the life-saving
benefits of strapping on a helmet. It has become second nature to
regular motorcyclists to don a helmet.
Over the years, this simple law has saved countless lives and it will
continue to do so. A crash helmet, as the name implies, can save lives
in a crash. The authorities should also be applauded for specifying that
seat belts must be worn at least in newer cars and that only buses with
seat belts for all passengers should be imported.
We also hope that the CCTV system now installed in parts of Colombo
would play its part in reducing accidents. It will help Police to
identify accident hotspots and take appropriate action. If successfully
implemented in Colombo, it should be expanded to cover other major
cities such as Galle, Kandy, Kurunegala and Anuradhapura.
In fact, this also raises the possibility of having a separate
institution for transport security, as opposed to safety. In the wake of
terror attacks, the US responded by establishing a Transport Safety
Authority (TSA) with wide powers. Personnel belonging to such an
institution could man the two international airports, domestic airports,
seaports, main railway stations and bus terminals to ensure enhanced
They can work closely with the Police and the Security Forces to
coordinate and implement security arrangements at transport hubs. They
can also link up with transport safety personnel in certain cases. They
should be given the latest equipment to check passengers, baggage and
cargo. Overseas training will also help.
Transport safety and security is all about planning and prevention of
accidents. It can be simpler than we think - for example, why not ban
overloading in three wheelers for a start? Why not make it compulsory
for even backseat passengers to wear seat belts? Why not request
cyclists to wear helmets? These simple steps can save lives. Any
investment made in that direction is highly commendable.