MONSTERS ON THE ROAD
Posted on August 20th, 2015

OPINION BY  Dr Tilak S  Fernando

 If there is anything that saturates the overall news on television and newspapers these days, excluding an eye full of politics, then certainly the road accidents and associated deaths take an equal share to dominate news. Last year statistics revealed a figure of 35,000 road accidents, out of which 2439 persons had been killed. During the first half of this year (2015), road accidents have claimed 790 lives in traffic accidents while it becomes apparent that on average at least six individuals become victims of road accidents everyday in Sri Lanka, let alone the vast number of casualties who get injured and/or disfigured.

 A carefully designed transport system in a country, with its effective motor traffic law enforcement, becomes the main artery of a nation’s healthy existence. All-great powers in the modern world have been benefitted out of an efficient transport system by buttressing their economic growth.

crashed  car after an accident

Today what do we get to see on TV or in national newspapers constantly? Either a motorcyclist has been hit by a heavy vehicle, a bus crashed into some other property or fallen off a precipice killing a few and injuring many, or head-on crashes of busses, lorries, containers with three wheelers and/motor cycles, giving a gloomy picture on deaths and/or injuries.

The public in general, as well as the media, have been crying out for years to the authorities, ‘until the sun begins to rise from the east and the moon loses its splendor, to tackle this problem on a serious note. It is however encouraging at least to note now that many policemen and women, apart from the traffic police, are going to be deployed to nab and book traffic offenders in order to address this problem in a constructive manner.

One of the problems Sri Lanka faces today is the increase in number of new vehicle registration, which contributes to road accidents. In such a backdrop road/traffic/town town planners and traffic control and implantation authorities need to work abreast with each other to obtain optimum results without simply blaming the traffic police alone, who most of the time suffer burning in the hot sun and getting wet in heavy showers, to deal with the problem.

Traffic Lights.

Syncronisation of traffic colour light signals with balanced time intervals, after careful studies by taking a particular congested area into consideration, will greatly enhance the traffic flow. Today in Sri Lanka, however, policemen on duty at clogged junctions have a habit of turning off the traffic lights and attempt to control the passage manually by hand gestures which becomes counter productive.

Traffic signals on the other hand are installed after a careful analysis of traffic patterns at an enormous cost to the government; professionals and experts, at either Moratuwa University or other relevant institutions, give preference to the busiest lanes depending on the time and place of the day generally prior to such time settings.

Switching off traffic signals during peak hours by police officers and taking its responsibility upon themselves is often criticised by motorists as making a complete mess on the roads which invariably gives rise to long and uneven traffic jams and queues. If Sri Lanka were to abide by the international modes of operandi in controlling and filtering traffic in a smooth manner, then it would be essential to keep the policemen out without having to interfere with electronic colour signals. Their participation could be more beneficial by being vigilant on traffic offenders and imposing heavy fines rather than many of them who seem to act as only ‘ by-standers’! How can the efficiency levels of a human brain be compared with that of a computer programmed pre-setting of colour light signal operation?  It does not simply add up to.

Errant motorists too are a pain in the present day traffic/road debacle. Either their total lack of knowledge on the highway code or many who are familiar with the motor traffic law but are taking the attitude of ‘ if you cant win ‘em, why not join them’ and turn public roads into a chaos.

Traffic police should be more vigilant and strict on the despicable behaviour of high speed bus drivers who deem to think roads are their private domain; ‘three-wheelers’ (tuk tucks) creeping in and out of vehicle gaps like cockroaches as much as the selfish motor cyclists who hug the middle of the road or climb onto pavements at traffic blocks by completely ignoring the pedestrians safety and their right to use such pavements need to be severely apprehended.  There is no point in the presence of a uniformed policeman on the roadside if only he/she behaves as a by-stander while errant motorists blatantly break the law right in front of their eyes.

‘On- the- spot’ fines for negligent drivers with a point system and suspension of their driving for offences, will undoubtedly be a bitter pill and it could cure the present state of chronic disease prevalent among Sri Lankan motorists.

Blatant Violation

The Ceylon/Sri Lanka Motor Traffic Act categorically emphasises that one should always overtake only from the right. DIG Ashoka Wijetilaka was once quoted as saying, drivers should always use the left lane and the right lane should be used only to overtake a vehicle”. This warrants lane discipline to be thoroughly monitored and strict action taken by mobile patrol Traffic Police units as much as every police officer who stands on the roads from morning till night. Regrettably, to-date, almost every motorist flagrantly breaks this basic statute while the Traffic Police are seen  turning a Nelsonian eye! Rigid enforcement of this fundamental law can turn into a money-spinner for the Police Department only if the latest move of extra police personnel deployed .

The presence of a policeman near a zebra crossing or at pelican crossing can always act as a deterrent to a would be motor offender. By such presence, the police officer should be conscious and duty bound to be firm and impose heavy fines at every moment he detects an errant motorist breaking the traffic law. Hefty fines do work in combatting the increase in disruptive drivers on the road but that should not be made the general criteria to get convictions recorded in a policeman’s daily diary only to ‘ upgrade the officer’s status’!

Motorists often complain that some of the policemen conceal behind trees or sit inside a ‘tuk tuk’ to catch errant drivers and issue penalty notices and/or refer them straight to courts. This does not help much in tackling the issue. Ideally when an aberrant motorist is penalised and issued with a penalty notice, he should in the first instance be banned immediately from driving for at least for two weeks and make him/her attend a specially designed class room as a punishment during that prohibition period and made he/she listen to lectures and video clips by senior police officers on safety and driving techniques along with familiarizing them with the highway code. For this purpose either the department of police or Ministry of Transport needs take the initiative to organise such classes. This could be regarded as very harsh, but bitter medicine certainly helps to cure chronic diseases! Through experience of such criteria where one tends to lose one’s wages by attending to such punitive classes, soon the message will go down well.

The ‘ Yaha palanaya motto’ of abandoning of politicians motorcades that used to harass and intimidate all the other road users when they were flying on road at speed needs to be admired with due credit. If no one is above the law, the police is duty bound to book any vehicle whether it bears armed forces number plates, huge luxury Landcrusers or four wheel drive vehicles whenever any traffic laws are violated. In the UK motorway traffic police had fined even Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana for over speeding on motorways, and they have gracefully accepted the mistake and paid their fines, of course by sending a representative to the courts.

It is evident that the traffic police take so much of trouble in trying to reduce the congestion in Colombo roads by constantly making various roads into one way streets. Among priorities in curbing road accidents      the left lane policy” was introduced once in Colombo and seems to have died a natural death after a week or so!

What is most important today is strictly to make the three wheelers, trucks, 30-40’containers hugging the middle of the road and the overtaking lanes at speed.  Unruly private bus drivers blaring ear piercing hones from behind and attempting to intimidate the driver in front needs special attention as they can themselves cause road accidents by being so impatient or bulling and another driver in front into a panic and cause an accident. For all these offences there are rules only confined to the rulebook unfortunately!

Traffic offenders

The current procedure of dealing with traffic offenders is regarded as antiquated and causing inconvenience to victims. If international norms are to be followed, any driver who violates the traffic law can be served with an on-the- spot penalty notice, demand his/her driver’s licence (by the prosecuting officer) and documents forwarded to a police station nominated by the offender at the time of the offence; the officer then hands over   a note to the offender indicating the amount of the fine to be paid and gives him/her seven days to pay the fine. The offender then pays the fine to a post office/bank and visits his nominated police station with the payment slip to recover his licence. The drunken drivers could be referred to Magistrates Courts for necessary action.

This is what happens in the UK where the offender is given seven days to produce the payment slip to the nearest police station he/she nominates at the time of the incident and the prosecuting police officer is bound to send the charge sheet details and the licence to that particular police station.  By this way motorists are not inconvenienced.

The methods adopted today are so outdated and troublesome for anyone to get the licence back, and for this purpose having to travel all the way up the police station where the offence had been committed. There were much talk about helping the public by introducing a method of paying such motor fines with the help of mobile phones, however such hopes and suggestions seem to have died a natural death!  In this computer and IT age, such fines can be made payable even on the Internet (on line) which will make it most convenient to every one by nominating the nearest police station by the offender.

Undoubtedly the Police is making a desperate attempt by introducing various methods to educate the Lankan motorists but appears to be faced with a problem, as the Police Commissioner himself has spelt out, that many recruits were trained only to handle guns during the terrorist insurgency and they need to be given refresher and orientation courses on policing and/or traffic matters.

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