Death smell of a different kind!
Dr. Tilak S. Fernando
Sri Lanka experienced a ghastly time during the terrorist conflict where death smell was in the air incessantly. When we were children, the very sound of a ‘death’ or a ‘funeral’ brought apprehension and fear amongst people. Such shockability which became diluted with JVP murders, finally accelerated to an unprecedented level due to mass butchery by the LTTE. So much so, the word ‘death’ seemingly benumbed the human feelings to an extent that the revulsion too diminished whilst the most fearsome word at one time transformed into something inconsequential.

There are no more terrorist killings in this country thanks to our gallant security forces who managed to annihilate the most ruthless terrorist element in the world (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) from the Sri Lankan soil. Contrary to such comforting thoughts, what the nation experiences at present is a different version of loss of life and injury due to road accidents.

Today everyone gets an eye full of disarray on roads and accidents of varying degree as a daily occurrence - private buses crashing into other vehicles and property, juggernauts carrying 40ft containers overturning, motorcyclists getting knocked down frequently, tut - tuts flying into the air with passengers, all of which making an immense contribution to the escalating nature of road accidents.

Safety awareness project
The National Hospital of Sri Lanka launched a road safety awareness project recently on road traffic accidents to report on a daily basis with the sole idea of bringing responsiveness to all concerned. The Institute of Legal Medicine and Toxicology has revealed that more than 50 percent of ‘unwarranted’ deaths are due to road accidents while sufferers from road traffic injuries add up to thousands with no compensation or insurance payments to victims.

These mishaps not only cause misery to people but incur additional expenditure on the Health Ministry budget in treating accident victims, which could otherwise be easily utilised for nation building projects.

What are the key factors causing road accidents? Basically it boils down to indiscipline on the part of all road users, both the pedestrians as well as motorists. Many who sit behind a steering wheel today display complete ignorance on the Highway Code or road discipline whilst others espouse a mind-set of joining the rest with ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude.

Motor traffic law
Pedestrians seem to consider roads as their private domain and they can walk across any road at any time from any place without paying any heed to moving traffic. Unfortunate indeed, it is due to the flaccid nature of implementing the law in this country peoples’ minds are allowed to condition to such depleted thinking being oblivious to the risks they take on their own lives in doing so. Their very perception that the motorists should stop and give way for them to cross the road at will, even when red traffic lights flash in front of them and when they jump out of buses at traffic jams, makes the problem very acute and thorny.

Major responsibility unquestionably falls on the traffic police who are supposed to be the custodians of accident prevention by implementing the motor traffic law in this country to the very letter. To understand the gravity of this problem one needs only to glance through newspapers which are full of such misery on a daily basis which makes readers’ eyeballs go hexagonal! Undoubtedly the Police is making a desperate attempt to eradicate this problem, but one cannot avoid a common scene also on roads how solo Police officers (or groups of two-three) at various road junctions moving out of the traffic points during the hot sun and in pitched darkness either due to excessive heat during day or fear of their lives in the dark!

Road accidents
Another common feature is some of the officers who are supposed to manage traffic are seen holding and operating walkie-talkies which take away their concentration and obstruct their movements to manage traffic. It would be far more effective to have a traffic patrol officer as a bystander at such points of operation to penalise an offender or chase after an errant motorist who does not obey the duty officer’s command.

Unlike in other countries where mobile traffic patrol squads on motor cycles and police panda cars have the powers to indict offenders, Sri Lankan patrol squad (at least in the Colombo and its suburbs) is not seen engaged in the same tasks but seen rather escorting VIPs! If one may suggest some of the major areas that need attention to combat and reduce motor accidents, the following would help as a guide;

  1. First and foremost re-orientate motorists not to drive on the outside (right) lane except for overtaking purposes.
  2. Be extremely vigilant on motorists who violate this regulation and take firm action against them with heavy on-the-spot fines.
  3. Confine lorries, buses and container traffic to nearside lane only except for overtaking; when ever seen any erratic driving impose heavy fines on unruly drivers.
  4. Introduce a point-based system for motor offenders and suspend driving licence for a specific period after reaching nine points
  5. Control motorcyclists who become pests on roads by cutting in and out from behind on the wrong side while taking life-threatening risks
  6. Launch effective awareness programmes on TV to educate motorists on road discipline and follow up with heavy on- the- spot fines on errant motorists.
  7. During such programmes get through to the audiences (both pedestrians as well as motorists) on the importance of road indiscipline.
  8. Make motorists stop at yellow zebra crossing compulsorily, especially bus drivers who ignore the rule. Make police officers control crossings to help pedestrians to cross the road.

Let the Automobile Association, Traffic Police and other relevant authorities work in harmony and take immediate and remedial action with the sole idea of reducing road accidents and deaths on the roads.