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Strategies for a safer road environment - Part I

Camillus R Abeygoonewardena
Former Deputy Inspector General of Police (Traffic Administration and Road Safety)

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.

Road 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 direction.

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 2020.

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 incomes.

(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 organizations.

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 other users.

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 situation.

 

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