Strategies for a safer road environment - Part I
Camillus R Abeygoonewardena
Former Deputy Inspector General of Police (Traffic Administration and
Some years ago when I was serving as Director Traffic and Road Safety
at Police headquarters, I was interviewed by veteran broadcaster late
Ravi John during a programme at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.
The interviewer asked me what I thought of the task of managing
traffic on our roads.
My reply to him was simple. I said “Managing traffic on our roads is
very similar trying to conduct a symphony orchestra with undertrained
musicians, using defective musical instruments, in a dilapidated music
hall or a hall requiring extensive upgrading and repairs.
accidents - socio-economic problem
My view has not changed and I believe is yet valid even today. There
is a dire need to upgrade our road infrastructure to meet the challenges
and demands of road users. There is also a greater need for a more
effective, vigorous, systematic and a committed approach to the
challengers by all stakeholders and every segment of society to make
roads safe for all users.
Mobility and safety
Traffic environment the world over revolves between two equally
compelling forces, the necessity of mobility and the greater necessity
of safety in mobility.
Mobility is a basic human need. Therefore, the right to safety in
mobility should be embodied or enshrined by the State as a Fundamental
Human Right, as a logical extension of Article 3 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights-which declares “Everyone has the right to
Life, Liberty and Security of person. People’s Right to Safety was
declared the theme of the Delhi Declaration at the fifth World
Conference on Injury, Prevention and Control, March 8, 2000. It was
further declared that upholding and ensuring safety in mobility should
be a facet of good government.
Horrendous consequences of road accidents
In Sri Lanka as well as in many Asian countries the magnitude and its
horrendous consequences of road trauma have not been adequately
addressed by successive governments due to compelling other reasons. If
we want to achieve any substantial progress in making our roads safer
the issue of safety in mobility should receive a much higher state
priority in the political agenda. Some progress is now visible in this
There is also an urgent and a pressing need for closer co-ordination
and collaboration using a holistic and an integrated approach among all
stakeholders in traffic and highway management in dealing with the task.
For the effective implementation of such an action plan requires a
stronger political will and a higher order commitment by the state.
For example in France when President Chirac made road safety a key
political priority in 2002, road deaths in France dropped by 20 percent
in 2003. Likewise state policies adopted in Australia in the mid 1990s
brought about a drastic drop in road accidents.
In 2004, this is what then the UN Secretary General Koffi Annan said
on road safety “The UN has to get governments to acknowledge that there
is a real volatile problem and we can use the World Health Day to
highlight the impact and also to underscore the fact that these
accidents are avoidable, they are due to human errors which with proper
government policy and planning can be greatly dealt with”.
What it cost the world and the nation?
In a global sense almost 1.5 million people die in road traffic
accidents annually and on an average 3,500 people are killed in road
accidents every 24 hours. A further 20 to 50 million people are injured
in road accidents annually. Deaths and injuries due to road traffic
accidents represent a considerable waste of nations’ wealth and
resources besides anguish and pain to victims and dependents. According
to the WHO road accidents cost countries between 1 to 3 percent of the
annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to WHO road deaths is
expected to be the fifth leading cause of death in the world by the year
In Sri Lanka, according to statistics compiled by the Police, the
year 2010 recorded 2,483 fatal accidents killing 2,630 persons. In the
same year 6,021 were seriously injured and 12,451 received minor
injuries. On this basis an average seven persons die due to road
accidents every day, about 16 persons are seriously injured and 34
persons receive minor injuries. In recent years from 2005 onwards there
is a considerable reduction in damage only accidents according to
statistics. This reduction is no reason to rejoice. This drop is due to
new insurance procedures in vogue where damage only accidents are
settled directly through Insurers without reporting to Police stations.
According to sources from the University of Moratuwa, road accidents
cost the country in the range of Rs.25 billion and traffic congestion
cost the country around Rs.35 billion or more.
Roads becoming less safe today
According to a study by the Moratuwa University shows the risk factor
of a Sri Lankan facing death on our roads has doubled from 1977 to 2005.
The risk of the next generation could be trebled by 2020 unless we take
remedial measures. In 1977 the risk factor on roads was 1 death to 116
whereas by 2005 it was 1 death to 51 normal deaths and by the year 2020
it may well be 1 death to 25 normal deaths.
In high income countries there is a remarkable relationship between
road fatalities based on sociological and economic factors. A similar
trend is perceptible in Sri Lanka, even though it is not a high income
country. The reasons for this increasing trend in deaths and injuries is
directly attributed to the following factors.
(a) The increase in mobility (Rapid Motorization) with increased
(b) The shift from safer modes of travel such as public transport to
less safer modes of private transport such as motorcycles, mo-peds,
three wheelers and pedal cycles to an extent due to inadequacies in the
public transport system.
(c) The increased desire to travel with the peaceful atmosphere now
prevailing in the country.
(d) Besides the combined effect of ineffective law enforcement, lack
of effective and stringent laws keeping to international rules,
inadequate planning and designing of roads to enhance safety of all
users, improved road surfaces of existing roads without inbuilt safety
features to meet road user behaviour, mechanical conditions of vehicles,
and the driving culture and lack of respect for road rules.
Traditionally over the years Pedestrians remained the highest
category of victims in road accidents in Sri Lanka, as in most
developing countries. They will continue to be vulnerable until the
roads are structured by means of traffic calming and segregation
measures by way of design features to enhance their safety.
In developed countries the pattern is totally different where drivers
and passengers form the highest category of those killed in road
accidents. Pedestrians are not significant due to numerous reasons, such
as respect for pedestrian rights, segregation of pedestrian from moving
vehicles, inbuilt safety features and higher order compliance of road
rules by drivers. In Sri Lanka, similar to Asian countries, such as
Singapore, Malaysia, Taipei and China motorcycles now form the largest
fleet of motorized vehicle segment and ranks also as the category most
vulnerable among road victims.
The category of motorcycle riders and pillion riders had been victims
in 33 percent and 32.5 percent of fatalities in the year 2009 and 2010
in the country. From now onwards it is very evident motorcyclists will
continue to remain as the most vulnerable group in road accidents
surpassing pedestrians and they will also be the serial killer and a
potential danger to others on our roads unless meaningful steps are
taken to enhance their safety and riding standards.
Motorcyclists besides being the highest victims in fatalities and
accidents have been responsible for causing the highest number of road
deaths and injuries in 2009 and 2010.
Hence, there is an urgent need for enforcement and safety
authorities, road planners and other stakeholders, such as, insurers,
manufacturers and agents of motorcycles to divert their attention to
enhance their safety and being a source of danger to others. As a
preliminary step towards enhancing their safety they should be made to
wear high visibility clothing and compelled to ride with their head
lights on during day light hours to be more visible. Many countries even
in the Asian region enforce this rule. It is most timely that we too
follow these safety measures.
An average motorcyclist in Sri Lanka learns to ride on his own either
with or with out ‘L’ boards without proper training from any driver
training institute, hence they are ignorant of the fundamentals of safe
riding or basic road rules, such as, lane discipline, signals or rules
on overtaking. Countries like Singapore, Japan and Malaysia have
established motorcycle training institutes. Government should take
immediate measures to bring legislation to set up such institutes with
the support of manufacturers of motorcycles, insurers and allied
Even road planners, local authorities and architects have neglected
this category by not providing adequate facilities for their parking and
riding needs on roads and within buildings. As a result they tend to
park and ride in any ad hoc manner causing inconvenience and danger to
Another disastrous move was to permit families to go on motorcycles
to overcome the travails of public transport for political
considerations by those in authority. I was much against this move when
it was mooted, as once the law is allowed to be broken, it is much more
difficult to put it back on track. Often children are permitted on
motorcycles with out safety helmets. It is also a common sight to see
motorcyclists riding with helmets not properly secured and no action
taken to rectify or correct the situation by the law enforcers. It is
also common sight to see motorcyclists riding without helmets in rural
areas and in some urban towns.
One way to enhance their safety will be to conduct a vigorous
re-training or safe riding programmes in all provinces in a uniform
pattern with the collaboration of all stakeholders, such as, motorcycle
manufacturers, local agents and insurers to contain this alarming