All have a role to play | Page 2 | Sunday Observer
Ensuring Road Safety

All have a role to play

4 December, 2022

Just a couple of weeks ago, a 14-year-old girl and her father were killed instantly when they were mowed down by a drunk driver in a pickup, within sight of their home. This is just one fatal road accident among the many that occur in Sri Lanka with alarming frequency.

Sri Lanka’s roads are among the deadliest in the world – with around 3,000 deaths every year or roughly six every day. Around 8,000 are injured per year, some of them seriously. Around 38,000 vehicle crashes occur in Sri Lanka every year, not counting those not reported to Police after drivers mutually exchange insurance details. The estimated annual road crash deaths per capita in Sri Lanka is the highest among its immediate neighbour in South Asia and five times that of the best performing countries. Over two-thirds of road crash victims are productive, working age adults between 15-64 years.

Huge burden

One glaring fact that is often ignored in these accident statistics is the massive health cost of accidents, as the State has to spend a colossal amount to treat those injured in accidents. This can be a huge burden to developing countries with free healthcare systems, such as Sri Lanka. In fact, the World Bank has estimated that accidents and related costs (such as health costs, loss of youth etc) could cost as much as 5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually for countries such as Sri Lanka in the long term. The World Bank has estimated that Sri Lanka might need an investment of over US$ 2 billion over the next few years to combat the road safety crisis.

In fact, a bigger investment has to be made for the first responders – the Ambulance service, fire brigade and the accident services of both State and private hospitals. In an accident with survivors, the first hour is often called the Golden Hour, because there is still a chance of saving their lives with proper and swift medical care within this period. The 1990 Suwa Seriya service must be upgraded with more fully-equipped ambulances and better trained crew members. Rural hospitals too should be provided with state-of-the-art ambulances to transport seriously injured persons to the nearest big hospitals where life saving blood transfusions and surgery can be performed.

Earlier, there was a proposal to establish an Air Ambulance Service in Sri Lanka at the rate of one helicopter per province. This may seem to be absurdly expensive for a country facing an economic crisis, but it is a worthwhile investment that will help save many lives in the long term. Hospitals such as Colombo, Peradeniya and Karapitiya can handle serious injury cases that many rural hospitals cannot. If an Air Ambulance Service is available, such patients can be safely transport to one of these hospitals in under 30 minutes from almost anywhere in the island.

Lack of information

Another factor that hinders rapid treatment is the lack of information on accident victims, including blood types. While the new Driver’s Licence is supposed to contain such information, it is doubtful whether the Police, First Responders or the Accident Service personnel have the facilities to “read” them. Delays are caused by the extra time taken to identify the blood types and garner some other useful information. These shortcomings should be rectified without delay.

Both these aspects (air ambulance and information on victims) also apply to the critical sphere of organ donation. Gruesome it may be, but young victims of accidents are the perfect organ donors as their organs are often in prime condition. Almost all of their organs from the eyes to the heart can be transplanted to those on the waiting list for organs if they can be transported swiftly. This is another crucial role played by Air Ambulance Services in other countries. It is also vital to educate the Sri Lankan public on the concept of “presumed consent” whereby the first responders take the vital organs of victims of fatal accidents on the assumption that relatives will give their consent anyway.

Moreover, hospitals must clearly outline their policy with regard to “brain dead” accident victims who have a very, very slim chance of revival. In such cases, the relatives face the dilemma of choosing between switching off the life support or keeping it on. But in the case of the former, six or seven people waiting on the transplant list will benefit. Of course, these are issues with moral and ethical dimensions that should ideally be discussed in a future article.

No ‘P Plate’ in Sri Lanka

But before we get ahead of ourselves, the factors that lead to accidents, fatal or otherwise, have to be analysed. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where a youngster can get the driver’s licence today and drive a high-powered Porsche tomorrow, no questions asked. Most other countries have a P Plate (for “Probationary”) which young drivers have to display for a couple of years, until they are fully conversant with road rules and manners. In some countries, they are also supposed to drive only with a licensed driver in the passenger seat.

Young drivers in many countries have to get a separate licence to drive on expressways. This was discussed here sometime back, but nothing happened. This system should be introduced with the planned Demerit Points system due to be introduced from next year. Under the latter system, drivers will get demerit points in addition to the existing fines. Theoretically, one could lose so many points and lose the licence as well.

The fines for certain serious offences are still inadequate and should be increased. The private bus lobby was successful in watering down many of the fines, which is understandable given that private buses (and three wheelers) are involved in most crashes. But these should be increased if some sanity is to be restored to our roads.


Driver training is the key to the prevention of most accidents – and most accidents can be prevented, apart from those caused by bad road or weather conditions. It is rather well-known that most driver training schools have “arrangements” in place to ensure that their students pass the practical test. Driving schools must be strictly regulated to ensure that they give a thorough training to their students. The first thing that learner drivers should learn is that “speeding kills”. Driving at moderate speeds always helps to avoid accidents.

But training to drive per se is not enough. Discipline is the other factor that most drivers solely lack. Almost 90 per cent of accidents can be avoided if all drivers (and indeed, all other road users including pedestrians) are disciplined. Many drivers will sound their horn if the car in front halts even at a pedestrian crossing. Such impatience serves no purpose at all on the road.

On the road, it is quite all right to be late (rather than be sorry). Both private bus and three wheelers drivers badly need a dose of discipline – that alone will see a reduction in the number of fatal accidents. And if Sri Lanka is serious about reducing the number of accidents, there is no doubt whatsoever that three wheelers have to be phased out, at least by 2035. They weave in and out of traffic, make sudden stops and U-turns, discharge passengers onto oncoming traffic and generally disregard all road rules. If they are gone, most accidents will also not occur.

DUI, another key cause

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) of Liquor is also a key cause of accidents, despite the existence of harsh punishments including the cancellation of drivers’ licenses. The Police need more modern equipment to detect drunken drivers. But DUI is not the only problem. The private bus union bosses have admitted that as many as 70 per cent of their drivers are using banned narcotics substances, which can imperil their judgement at a crucial moment. In this context, the Government has finally decided to get down equipment that can detect drug usage among drivers. New laws will have to be brought to impose penalties on such drivers, as the existing laws do not cover this particular aspect.

We already discussed young drivers, but old drivers can be a problem too. Reflexes and impulses get weaker as one ages, so old drivers may react a little bit too late in a crunch situation. Even a half second’s delay is enough to decide someone’s fate. This is especially so for older drivers who drive heavy vehicles. Since no country imposes an upper age limit for drivers of any vehicle category, it is up to the older drivers and their families to decide whether to call it a day.

Another problem that is common to all age groups of drivers is falling asleep at the wheel. We have all heard the joke about “my grandfather died peacefully in his sleep, not screaming like the others in the car he was driving”, but falling asleep at the wheel is no joke. Even a second’s sleep (called Microsleep) can be fatal to the driver, passengers and other road users. The golden rule is, if you are feeling sleepy, pull aside, rest, refresh and go again (unless there is another driver who can take over). It is also not advisable to drive after certain medications which may induce drowsiness as a side or intentional effect.

Mechanical defects

It is also vital to keep one’s vehicle in good condition and inspect it thoroughly specially before a long trip on the expressway. Mechanical defects are a main cause of accidents. Even low tyre pressure or worn out tyres can cause an accident. It is also essential to check the spare tyre occasionally. If the wipers do not work properly in the rain, low visibility could lead to an accident. Brakes are the most essential item that should be checked regularly, as good brakes can prevent an accident and save a life – possibly your own.

And drivers must exercise extra caution when driving in bad weather conditions such as torrential rain or heavy mist. They must also be careful when driving at night, regardless of weather. Visibility may be poor in some instances even with good headlights – which, incidentally, are another part of the vehicle that should be checked regularly, along with turn indicators and hazard lights.

Good policing can play a part in reducing accidents. Unfortunately, the Police here are more concerned about collecting fines to meet their “targets” rather than educating motorists on their road habits. It is also well known that Traffic Police officers turn the other way when Police, Security Forces and politicians’ vehicles break every known road rule. This impunity must stop.

The law must apply equally to all motorists across the board. The above categories must not be exempted from the need to obey road rules. In other countries, even Prime Ministers have been fined for not wearing seat belts and speeding. It is too much to expect here, but the Police should muster the courage to stop at least a lowly politician’s vehicle if that driver commits an offence.

Compensation and legal action

This brings us to the whole question of compensation and legal action especially in case of fatal accidents. Over the years, there have been many cases of politicians’ vehicles (or for that matter, vehicles driven by celebreties, sportspersons and businessmen) knocking down pedestrians and cyclists, snuffing out the lives of family breadwinners. However, they usually get away with paying a meagre amount as compensation to the victim’s families and go scot-free, with no legal complications. This must stop. They should be held fully accountable for their actions and they have to pay – in more ways than one.

The road is a dangerous place – you are a million times more likely to die in a car crash than in a plane crash. It is up to all of us to exercise caution when undertaking a road journey, be it on foot or in a Bentley limousine. Sometimes these steps are rather simple – wear high visibility clothing when walking at night or equip your bicycle with a dynamo light – but they could mean the difference between life and death. Always, always, think several seconds ahead on the road and anticipate what could happen. That will prevent you from becoming just another grim statistic.