A day prior to the final match of the Road Safety World Series T20 tournament was played at Raipur in India on Sunday, 14 people were killed and 47 injured in a major road accident at Passara on Monaragala-Badulla main road. The tragedy occurred when a bus plying from Lunugala to Colombo had fallen down a 200 feet precipice while attempting to give way to a tipper truck.
Given the response of the authorities and the people to similar or more serious accidents in the past, one can conclude that this incident too would be forgotten within days without the authorities taking any measure to minimise road accidents in the country. On the other hand, the very initial response of the concerned authorities to the incident also points as to how they have understood the problem.
Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association (LPBOA) chief Gemunu Wijeratne had said the responsibility of the Passara bus tragedy should be taken by the Road Development Authority (RDA), the tipper-truck driver and the area police division. He opines that 25% of the responsibility should be taken by the RDA, the other 25% should be taken by the tipper driver and the rest by the police in the area, despite the whole world has seen how reckless the bus driver involved in the incident was. Meanwhile, as if this is the first major road accident in the country, Transport State Minister Dilum Amunugama had stated that his ministry had decided not to allow those who hold a heavy vehicle driving licence from ordinary driving schools drivers to drive passenger transport vehicles. He says that after obtaining heavy vehicle driving licence, the SLTB driving instructors will examine the person’s competency to drive passenger transport buses before he will be allowed to do so.
Referring to another eight deaths in road accidents within 24 hours after the Passara tragedy, police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana had said on Sunday that a three-day special operation was to be conducted across the country from Monday to inspect the worn-out tyres of vehicles, police announced. He also had stated that the police have initiated a month-long operation to nab the drivers who violate traffic regulations. These comments are an indication that the authorities see only one or two aspects of the issue and not the larger picture. And given the past experience in respect of similar incidents, it is clear these are temporary and ad-hoc steps just to appease the public.
A train collided with a bus taking children home from school and dragged it 50 yards on January 18, 1989, instantly killing 41 children and injuring another 72. The remedy that was implemented by the government of the day was to install bamboo gates where there were no permanent gates at railway crossings, employing persons living in the vicinity to man those gates. Despite the incident having drawn concern from around the country as the victims were mostly children, a few years later the gates were again abandoned by the gatekeepers due to poor salary and lack of other facilities.
A crowded bus racing with another bus collided with a train on a level crossing at Yangalmodara on the Colombo-Kurunegala main road on April 27, 2005, killing around 40 bus passengers, and injuring another 35 persons. Eight years later the driver and conductor of the bus were sentenced to death by the Kurunegala High Court. Except for the monument built at the site of the accident, authorities failed to bring in discipline among the drivers, especially those driving buses and three-wheelers. Often the relevant authorities have waxed eloquent of statistics on road safety, but the situation has not changed.
Before the Passara accident a huge boulder had fallen on the road blocking part of it. The lethargy of the official of the RDA was such that they have not taken steps to remove the bolder for six months despite the road running above a steep precipice. They have not put up road signs either to warn the drivers of the danger. One can find hundreds of such dangerous places in the country, especially in the up-country. The majority of roads in the country are poorly maintained.
The tipper driver, knowing very well that his side of the road is blocked wanted to cross the blocked area before the bus. At the same time, the bus driver, probably having known about the precipice did not want to slow down. There is no proper system to discipline the errant drivers, except for the random checks by the police, mostly in urban areas. In a corrupt system, there are ways and means to evade such monitoring. And the silo mindset of various stakeholders of the country’s transport and related sectors does not permit a complete overhaul of the system which is a must.