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Sunday, 28 February 2016

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Death every 3 ˝ ‘honour’

Road travel is becoming increasingly dangerous and hazardous:

Western Province, the most unsafe:


Camillus Abeygoonawardene

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 ˝ 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-1970s, the risk of death on the roads faced by Sri Lankans has nearly trebled. Such a tragic scenario is inevitable with higher volumes and a variety of traffic moving on an inadequate road network. The existing road network is incapable of accommodating the varying demands, volumes and mix of road use. There is a dire need for the State to bring about an overall improvement to the road network.

This has to be complemented by an integrated road safety enforcement system. This should be coupled with an efficient and a convenient mode of public transport.

This will discourage the use of unsafe private modes of travel which would not only ease traffic congestion but minimise road traffic accidents as well.

These issues are compounded by several other factors such as ineffective and lack of uniformity in law enforcement strategies with too much emphasis on traditional methods of static law enforcement.

These are outdated and incapable of meeting the desired objectives and challenges at hand.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 behaviour 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 and enforcement campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s.

Tough laws

Today’s challenges need 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 obtain the desired momentum.

There is also a greater need for tough laws with rigorous penalties for specific offences in high risk driver category by introducing the driver improvement point system (DIPS) to promote safe driving, curb accidents and reduce carnage on roads irrespective of who breaks the law.

Since trishaws form a sizeable component of the vehicles on our roads and their driving characteristics to say the least is most incomprehensible. There is a pressing need to enact rigid trishaw 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 the roads.

A complete ban on hailing trishaws on roadsides in the Colombo and Greater Colombo region should be the top priority of the authorities. Picking up passengers should be confined to trishaw 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 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 a political will and community based support.

There is also an urgent and pressing need for effective road safety awareness campaigns and programs targeting different users at risk.

This initiative should be sponsored or backed by all stake holders including insurance companies, agents and 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 with increased levels of motorisation there is an urgent need to enhance their safety. Unfortunately too little or no attention to safeguard their lives is visible.

There is an urgent need to look into the needs of pedestrians by providing paved side walks with guard railings and where appropriate, escalators and elevators at underpasses, overpasses need 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 signalised pedestrian crossings and well demarcated crossings but there is a greater need to enhance the safety of pedestrians.

Disrespect for road rules

Besides these factors the increase in road accidents could also be attributed to the users themselves for their callous disregard for road rules and road manners which have not been inculcated or ingrained into them in the early stages. Their contribution to road accidents in large measure goes unnoticed by the enforcement authorities and prosecution is heavily weighted on motorists’ lapses.

Most roads also need to be traffic engineered with built-in safety features, improved intersection design and improved street furniture to discipline and to safeguard road users. Such in-built safety features would help to overcome some of the behavioural patterns on roads and simultaneously bring about greater safety while 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 driving and riding with a sound understanding of the hazards on roads. Traffic conditions and the road environment do not remain stationery, they change continuously and rapidly. A driver has to constantly review his driving practices and improve his skills and technique to the demands of traffic.

To most people, the driving licence is the ultimate thing and neither one’s knowledge nor skills mature beyond it. But the challenge of driving needs the perfection of 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 standard of evaluating learner drivers should be established.

Pic: ANCL media library

This should be combined with advanced 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 behaviour 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, and over-estimating one’s skills and abilities.

In many accidents emotional factors, driving absent-mindedly, lack of physical alertness, night fatigue, failure to indicate one’s change of direction by means of signals and poor observation of the road scene are some factors that lead to road accidents with many ending in tragic consequences.

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 users’ 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 users’ fear to commit violations because of the serious consequences they have to encounter.

Road deaths in the provinces

Province-wise the Western Province continues to lead in road accidents and road deaths. This has been the norm over the years due to rapid urbanisation and other prevailing factors and features in this region.

Besides rapid motorisation 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 a multitude of reasons. 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 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 second 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 trishaws that contribute in large measure to the high rate of accidents. The roads in this province and 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 the Galle road in the Police areas of Wadduwa, Kalutara, Ambalangoda, Induruwa and Aluthgama after the southern expressway came into existence.

Perhaps road widening and the introduction of center medians and center road markings on this stretch of road has also made a significant contribution to this reduction.

There is a heavy concentration of accidents and road deaths on the Galle road beyond Matara and on the other interior roads in the province. This province too has a sizeable percentage of motor cycles, bicycles and trishaws which have contributed to the increase in road accidents in the region.

High risk category

The most vulnerable category of road users on our roads in recent years has been motorcyclists. Motor cycles in the Asian Pacific region have accelerated motorisation 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 here and in the Asian region based on affordability and the thrill of speed it brings to youthful riders.

The death toll of motor cycle riders and pillion riders last year was a staggering 1,017 victims and 917 deaths in 2014. Injury wise too motor cyclists also rank the second highest in road accidents. This category also forms the largest percentage of the vehicle fleet in Sri Lanka. At present 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 continue to ride without protective helmets due to lack of enforcement. Their visibility by day needs to be enhanced by getting them to switch on headlights in dipped position or by wearing reflective jackets or at best coloured 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 a 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 younger day and thus pose a grave danger to others on the roads.

Setting up off road driver and rider training centres 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 due attention when planning and designing roads in urban areas. It may sound a huge investment but its benefits 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 were 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 past three decades there has been a significant increase in road fatalities and deaths on week ends. Trunk roads generally have a higher rate of accidents during week-ends.

Hit and run fatalities

This necessitates Police divisions to do an in-depth analysis of accidents and fatalities occurring on main trunk roads especially during week-ends and execute intensive enforcement strategies deviating from the present traditional static enforcement to lessen this trend.

Fatalities involving hit and run vehicles are rapidly increasing year after year. The victims in these tragedies are mostly pedestrians. Most of them become victims of hit and 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 and run category. In 2014, the number killed in hit and run accidents was 92 of whom 76 were pedestrians. In 2015 those killed in hit and run accidents amounted to 113 of whom 86 were pedestrians, 14 motor cyclists and 13 pedal cyclists.In hit and run fatalities the party responsible evades reporting the accident perhaps due to the driver being under the influence of liquor, or perhaps not possessing a valid licence. 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 of 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 follow up investigation procedures laid down are not carried out in the desired and diligent manner. Hit and run accidents need to be scrutinised and followed up more diligently. 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.

There is also a dire need to impose deterrent penalties on hit and run offenders to minimise this trend. It would be most appropriate, if such offences are made non-bailable 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 offers safety on roads a higher priority in the political agenda in the name of ‘Good Governance’.

The writer is a former DIG in-charge of Traffic Administration and Road Safety

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