Tuesday`s highway horror on the Galle Road when a beer delivery truck collided with a CTB bus killing 22, including women and children, and injuring over 50 has once again focused attention on rampant indiscipline on our highly congested and badly maintained roads. The drivers of both the ill-fated bus and the vehicle moving a container load of beer are dead and it is difficult, at this stage of the investigation, to apportion blame. There have been reports that the beer truck driver had nodded off at the wheel, but a statement recorded from his mate who survived the crash seems to suggest otherwise. These are matters for police and judicial investigation and we will refrain from trespassing on those areas. What is pertinent for this comment is the ever-deteriorating standards of road safety in our country.
Many drivers on our roads do not care a damn for the safety of other road users. As B.A. Siriwardene, the Editor of the Aththa newspaper once famously wrote in a trenchant front page editorial, too many of our road users are like the mudalali who said, ``my car, my petrol, mata oney vidihata parey yanna beri ai?`` Bus drivers too often use the sheer size of their vehicle to bully other motorists. They tear down the road at high speed, horns blaring, and god help anybody in their way. Three wheelers are another menace zigzagging in and out of traffic totally oblivious of lane discipline. Overtaking on the wrong side is far too common with many drivers, sometimes impatient about road hoggers crawling along in the center of the road, taking the easy way out. Lots of traffic cops are around especially at peak hours, but they are slow in booking offenders. One reason for this is that stopping a miscreant in heavy traffic only serves to further slow the movement of vehicles.
Private buses speed for many reasons, the most common being the desire to beat their competitor to the next bus halt to pick up the passengers waiting there. Bus owners also demand that their crews bring in minimum specified sums and this results in dangerous driving both to beat the other man to the next bus stop as well as maximize the number of trips for the day. It is commonly known that many policemen, including senior officers, have interests in private buses and this obviously does not serve the cause of properly enforcing the road rules. There are many cops who take bribes from traffic offenders and some motorists are happy to part with a couple of hundred rupees or more rather than go through the time consuming process of surrendering their driving licences, paying a fine somewhere and then going back to the police station, sometimes driving a long distance, to retrieve their papers. Often the document is locked in somebody`s drawer and the cop is not in the station!
The police are far too busy protecting VVIPs and VIPs to devote adequate time to their law enforcement responsibilities. The zeal with which they stop traffic to facilitate VIP movements are visible for all to see. They are jumping around all over the roads, gesticulating madly, whistles shrilling when a VIP movement takes place. Both motorists and pedestrians must patiently cool their heels until a motorcade whizzes past. The other day a businessman held up at a traffic halt walked up to a policeman and told him that the lady in the car in front of his was the wife of a former president whom he named.
``Egollogey kaley panala,`` the cop sagely replied. Fair enough. Nobody should get preferential treatment at a roadblock, we agree. But we can`t help wondering whether an incumbent VVIP/VIP and even a not so important personage would not have been waved through because bestowing favours on the privileged is very much a part of the national culture.
While many of our roads are in an atrocious condition, the main highways radiating out of Colombo like the Galle Road, Kandy Road, Ratnapura Road, Negombo-Chilaw Road etc. are in good shape. While it is a pleasure to drive on a smoothly carpeted surface unbroken by ruts, the downside is that good roads are often an incentive to speeding. Policing speed limit infringements is patchy ? some police stations, perhaps equipped with speed guns ? do their jobs. Others do not. Checks against speeding buses and lorries are particularly important as these heavy vehicles generate so much momentum that being hit by one of them would result in any ordinary vehicle crumbling like a papadam. Tuesday`s accident should at least create a consciousness among bus drivers that the lives of large numbers of people, packed sardine-like into their vehicles, are in their hands. Last week`s was not our first bus disaster. We`ve had many more over the years but have learned no lessons from such tragedies.
The urgent need at present is to enforce discipline on the roads. While this responsibility rests primarily with the police, public education too is a must. You might have noticed a painted question ``How am I driving?`` with a telephone number below that a few civic minded organizations display on their vehicles. We do not know whether people do call in. Hopefully they do, not only to complain but also to compliment good driving. Having such a question painted at the back of a vehicle would certainly be a deterrent to bad driving and bus and lorry owners particularly should consider using the device. The office of the Commissioner of Motor Transport responsible for issuing driving licences should also be more exacting in its demands before letting some of our drivers loose on the roads. Unfortunately this office too is allegedly riddled with corruption like many other institutions in our country. Given what the LTTE is doing, we do not say that targeted personalities should not be protected. But there should be a sense of proportion in the protection offered and the allotment of police time and resources for these duties should not be at the cost of law enforcement including disciplining speed fiends and reckless drivers.