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#RoadWarsSL : Dematagoda accident and the future of road safety

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Yesterday another fatal road accident occurred. Two more were added to the death toll. Looks like a new war is being fought on our roads.

Dematagoda fatal crash: Teen driver and mother remanded

The 15-year-old student and his mother who were arrested over the fatal accident in Dematagoda last night, which resulted in the death of a woman and her 10-year-old daughter, have been remanded after being produced at court today.

That was a story that had a severe viewing from the populous, and everyone seemed to be blaming the kid who was behind the wheel. As always when it comes to limelight media, this is just half the story. By reading this article you will realize how a portion of the guilt for this incident and other fatal road accidents should fall unto the state and her negligence. Yes that kid certainly had more than a fair share of the guilt, however this incident is just a glimpse of how horrifying Sri Lanka’s driver discipline is. This article is not one that justifies the child behind the wheel and it certainly isn’t one isolated around this incident alone. It is simply one that is scrutinizing the license issuing process and driver discipline in our country in an attempt to provide an informed opinion, for informed democracy.

It needs to be understood that this kid was underage and there seem to be allegations that the child was having an illegal street race with another driver. However lets pause that image for a split second and look at this bigger picture. Have fatal accidents of this nature occurred previously with licensed drivers? YES. In that case this article wouldn’t be on the wrong side if it were to claim that something is severely wrong with our driver discipline in general.

Lets analyze the issue and try to find a few changes we can make to minimize fatal accidents and ensure smooth passage of vehicles.

Firstly, the lack of supporting infrastructure in alliance with developed highway facilities. In and around Colombo the main roads are becoming increasingly developed. Galle road, Baseline road, High Level road and quite recently even the 120 route has been developed to world class highway standards. However supporting infrastructure, for instance, islands at the middle to prevent excessive overtaking or street lights throughout the entire highway or suitable crossing facilities(overhead or underground) to ensure absolute safety when crossing a highway. The 3 mentioned basic facilities are not fully present even in the 4 major highways that I quoted in this article. Frankly, if the streetlights are not present or non operational, if the only available crossings are zebra crossings, and if the crossing pedestrian is wearing a dark color, it would make things quite difficult even for an experienced driver to prevent an accident. Whilst this certainly can not be used as a justification in the case of a fatal accident, it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that these facilities are present to minimize the risk of such accidents from occurring in the future.

Secondly, and the one that carries most weight. The severe lack of driver discipline. There are 2 very simple root causes. The first is a significant flaw within the driver license issuing procedure. The current system of providing driving license was quite effective 25 years ago, however it’s severely outdated in creating disciplined drivers in a city where a significant proportion of the population have a vehicle that can easily hit 100 kmph and suitable roads for those speeds. Driving in Sri Lanka today is a lot complicated than it was a decade ago.

Lets look at how the existing system works. Once you pass the medical examination, the student should write an MCQ paper. Whilst all Sri Lanka’s examinations are geared with the intention of “What questions will the student not be able to answer?” this specific exam is designed in a manner where a twit with a psychotic breakdown can pass. However this issue is simply a pebble, the boulders will keep coming one after the other in this article. Once this written exam is passed the student will receive a learners permit, where he/she would be able to drive with a fully qualified driver riding shotgun. 3 months after getting the permit, the student can take part in a trial and get the full license. That is horrifying, the current system is providing the student less time to train to become a driver than to become a hair stylist. Lack of training in one can make you look like a nincompoop, and the other can effectively lead to negligent homicide.

Ideally a system which I would benchmark to be set as the bar would be the license issuing procedure carried out at New South Wales. Under this system, getting the full license takes a minimum 4 years with a minimum of 240 driving hours, (with 40 being night hours) that is in addition to various exams that need to be passed along the way. For further details click here.

Pragmatically whilst this may seem too ideal and difficult to implement, it isn’t, citizens simply need to understand the gravity and responsibility of what it means to drive a vehicle and not find an easy way to get the license. The key to becoming a good driver is patience, how can patience be instilled if the license issuing process itself is haphazard and limited to 3 months.

Recently I trained at a learners school and applied for the driving trial exam, when applying for it through the learners I was asked to make a payment of Rs.1500, when I inquired about this fee from my trainer he directly said that it was a bribe for the trial examiner, and claimed that they were being blackmailed as if the bribe was not paid the learner schools students would be failed and that would taint the reputation of the school. At my trial I got nervous and made a mistake by parking the vehicle blocking a by-road, if the exam were unbiased I should have failed that day, however the bribe had secured my license. Whilst I was happy to get my license, I felt sad that I was forced to partake in a corrupt deal, because if I didn’t make that payment I would have failed even if I made zero mistakes”

~Arjuna De Costa(Name has been altered for privacy)

The 2nd root reason for horrible driver discipline is that a majority of the traffic police don’t effectively impose the law. If I were to take an example, the lane discipline law is not imposed at all. Along High Level road there are signs which say it is being imposed, however seeing bikes, tuks and buses on the fast lane which is in violation of the lane law and leads to heavy traffic during office hours is ignored by the police officials. However I have seen all traffic laws being rigorously imposed in and around Galle Face. Ideally if the same rigorous application of the laws were applied elsewhere in the city we would be traveling in a much safer road.

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