The school van fiasco – an issue blown out of proportion.?

23 January 2012 02:28 pm - 3     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The accident in Mount Lavinia which took place on Wednesday morning when a speeding school van crashed into a bus leaving nine students injured due to the negligence of the 21 year old van driver brought the attention of the authorities in the transport sector and also the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) on the need to introduce regulations to deal with such errant drivers and for vehicles which are not suitable for transporting students.

The 21 year old school van driver on a temporary license who drove the van between 80-100 kilometres per hour and crashed into a bus at around 7.00am.

The van, which is nearly 16 years old had tried to overtake another vehicle and had travelled on the wrong side crashing into an oncoming bus. Police said that every day between 6.30am and 7.30am, three lanes are given for vehicles heading to Colombo to ease the traffic congestion on the Galle Road and the van had gone on the fourth lane.

The ill-fated van was heading to Colombo from Moratuwa and was transporting school children between the ages of 10 and 13. It crashed into a bus plying in the 155 route heading to Soysapura.

The accident caused injuries to school children from Ananda College, Nalanda College, Thurstan College, Vishaka Vidyalaya, Gothami Balika Vidyalaya and St. Lawrence School.

Police said that the driver had been using a temporary license for seven months, from the time he passed his trial and the van had been in an unserviceable condition and not fit for transport of school children.
The need to regulate

The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) is currently working along with the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Private Transport Services Ministry to regulate school vans while 224 school children between the ages of 1-19 were killed due to road accidents in 2011.

According to the police a total of 4,133 children in the same age category were injured last year due to road accidents.

According to highly placed sources, they hope to put forward a cabinet paper to regulate the entire school transport system as there was a need to prevent vehicles which are not suitable for school transportation.
Section 14 of the NCPA Act No. 50 of 1998 says that the NCPA can take action to avoid child exploitation incidents inside school vans. Under the section, they have registered nearly 9,000 school vans so far. The authorities want to improvise the Act in order to regulate the road worthiness of vehicles transporting school children and also school van drivers as well.

The police will take steps to monitor the condition of vehicles which are engaged in transporting school children and check the road worthiness of these vehicles on a regular basis.

Taking steps to improve the condition of vehicles engaged in transporting school children is a task of the NCPA. However when regulating them and to ensure that the vehicles are maintained by obeying the regulations cannot be handled alone by the NCPA, the police will have to come forward to assist the authority as the main law enforcement institution in the country.

Most of the school vans used to transport school children are more than 15 years old. The lack of regulations has caused serious accidents and incidents due to the poor standard of the vehicles or for having an inexperienced driver behind the steering wheel.

Laws should have been introduced many years ago. But no administration was keen to bring the regulations and improve the standard of the vehicles. If the required regulations were brought in with the law, 224 valuable lives could have been saved.

A Code of Conduct should be introduced to drivers in the school transport system such as during the trip, the driver must see to the secure driving of the vehicle and to arrange, according to the regulations above, that every pupil has a secure seat.
In Sri Lanka having a speed limit for vehicles involved in transporting school children is a must. As almost all the accidents were caused due to speeding or drunk driving.

Authorities should introduce technical standards for the quality of vehicles used for transporting school children, adopting a license system for school bus operation and to make compulsory annual safety checks to renew their safety qualifications.

Vehicles that are up to the required standard and with a unified appearance should obtain an approval from education authorities and transport authorities.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa also advised the NCPA to increase regulations on school van drivers following the incident.

The Inspector General of Police (IGP) N.K. Illangakone was instructed by the President to provide him with a report on the school van accident at Mount Lavinia and to ascertain the competency and experience of school van drivers.

The President while giving the above instructions had also pointed out that it was imperative to look into the experience and competence of school van drivers to ensure the safety of school going children who use this mode of transport.

The NCPA was instructed by him to take stern action against any school van driver or transport provider who does not abide by the required standards.

Is it really an issue that needs state intervention?

A school van is the most convenient method of transportation to and from schools for children. The other alternatives are the public transport system for the less privileged and for those who are fortunate enough a chauffeur driven ride to school. The basic factor that needs to be understood is that a school van serves many purposes of which that safety, reliability and punctuality of the students are the most important.

The secondary purposes that are served is the fact that through school vans the traffic congestion is reduced drastically within Colombo and other major cities, due to the fact that a school van carries a certain number of passengers who, if they, decide to go to school as individuals would cause a major mess of the traffic flow.

What has to be understood at the outset is that the whole 'school vans need to be regulated’ cry almost always comes in the wake of some incident that draws the attention of the media and subsequently the public, is unearthed. During the last decade there were many instances of child molestation and a rare accident that captured the headlines. The school van issue is mainly two fold.

One is regarding the conduct of the school van drivers. Are they capable of driving? Would the children be safe with the driver? Is he responsible? Is he a safe driver? The other issue is related to the condition of the vehicle. Is the vehicle in good condition? Is it safe enough for over a dozen children to travel in the vehicle? Does it possess the minimum safety standards required for passenger travel are some of the key issues that surround the two larger issues.

However upon close inspection these two major issues cannot and should not fall only within the gambit of a "school van'. Yes the fact remains that a school van is the main cause of concern because of the fact that innocent children are the passengers and the eventual victims. But the problem comprises a much larger phenomenon. Let us examine the ground issues regarding the two bigger questions. A paedophile, or a child molester or a sexual psychopath doesn’t necessarily need to be driving a school van to satisfy his sexual cravings. Yes of course the chances of his contact with children are much higher and the likelihood of them succumbing to the offender is high, but the fact remains that these individuals are part and parcel of society. A simple 'plastic operation' which ensures that no sexual offender would be given permission to drive a van would not eradicate the larger problem. Besides, many of the individuals who wall within the scope of the above categories are not often caught, and their acts have gone un questioned for years. How are these offenders to be nabbed? What guarantee does the NCPA, the police or any other relevant authority give the parents, the children and the public that these offenders will be kept indoors and won’t be given the chance to drive a school van?

The other corollary issue regarding the safety in driving has caused much concern especially after the recent accident. Once it was found that the driver was a 21 year old with a temporary driving license all those concerned raised their arms up crying “how was he given a vehicle to drive?" The harsh reality is however, that this man possessed a valid license temporary or not. The fact that he was given a license means that he has the “license” to drive a vehicle that his “license” stipulates. It is understood in Sri Lanka that any youth turning 18 would be of legal age to possess a license. Therefore the issue that needs to be given proper attention now is the fact that are the drivers who go through the 'Verahera' test sound enough to drive vehicles on Sri Lankan roads. It is a known fact that the driving test is in no means a ‘real’ test. This is the crux of the issue. Substandard drivers pass the portals of 'Verhera' day in and day out. The test which includes a written examination which a 12 year old with half an hour of practice could sit for and pass, is the real issue. It is regulating and implementing a comprehensive plan in this regard that is the need of the hour, because the driver who drove that ill-fated van that day could have been driving another vehicle. Are we to say that one person's life is more valuable than the other? Again the authorities seem hell bent on offering the usual “plastic surgery”, which will most likely be the regulating of age of those who could drive school vans. The question remains that if the individual cannot drive a school van, he cannot drive any other vehicle because he runs the same risk of knocking down an innocent bystander or putting in jeopardy his passengers’ lives.

The second major issue is regarding the conditions of the vans. It has to be understood that many owners of school vans are self-employed. These individuals rely on the income they earn by providing a mode of transport to the students to feed their families. Therefore economic considerations play a huge part in the maintenance of a vehicle. One cannot expect the owners to buy new vehicles overnight nor can one expect the vehicles to suddenly become vehicles of ‘sound condition’. What is needed is a long term action plan, which includes a compulsory setting and adherence to specified standards within a given time frame. The checking could be conducted at the “emission tests’ which are now compulsory for all vehicles when renewing its license.

Thus the crux unsurprisingly seems to have been ignored. The molester needs to be counseled and turned against his perverse sexual addictions if not he should be kept far away from civilization. Identifying and taking action against them is the need of the hour. The cure has to be long term and a lasting one, it has to serve the purpose in both the larger and smaller context because as much as children are valuable so is society at large. (Supun Dias and Hafeel Farisz)

  Comments - 3

  • Sameen Jan Friday, 27 January 2012 03:55 AM

    Y do you not publish my comments?

    sahdi Wednesday, 01 February 2012 07:46 AM

    police officials are very keen to punish single line overtake without Helmet.

    ayesha Sunday, 29 January 2012 03:43 AM

    This article is way too long and way too subjective. It reflects the opinion of the author only. It had not considered other contradicting opinions. Therefore, it lacks objectivity.

    Solution for the problem ( in my opinion) considering practicality as well;
    Government to regulate school vans which should include
    - A special driving licence to drive school vans. So you need to go through a special training before you drive school children to school
    - Strict regulations on the condition of the vehicle required in order to transport children
    - All school vans and school van drivers to be registered. A background check (i.e. a police clearance report etc) on the drivers to be compulsory.

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