Last year, 2641 people have died due to road traffic accidents. 7693 had sustained serious injuries and 10691 minor injuries. Of course, it was a drop from the last year but we must not assume that it is the beginning of the downward trend. The reason for the reduction may be due to some other reasons.
Still it was a big price to pay. So, the question arises - what interventions are required to continually reduce road traffic injuries in Sri Lanka in the long run? This is a topic extensively discussed during the past two decades. But let us take a fresh look.
A philosophy known as “Defensive Driving” is in practice for many decades in many developed countries to cut down the traffic accident rates in their countries. It is found to give positive results but, unfortunately, this concept is not yet popularly adapted in Sri Lanka.
The defensive driving is the basis for a more advanced course in driver and passenger safety. It involves learning a more proactive attitude behind the wheel, anticipating potential hazards instead of simply reacting to them. American National Standards Institute defines the defensive driving skills as “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.” It is a set of driving skills that allows you to defend yourself against possible collisions caused by bad drivers, drunk drivers, and poor weather.
We meet all sorts of drivers on our roads in Sri Lanka; i.e. drivers who are probably overdosed on Fast and Furious TV series: drivers who do not know how to overtake or take a left or right turn: drivers who drive as if they have one hour to kill on road to 6 km destination. In your vocabulary, there may be more like lane hoggers, weirdos, foodies etc.
Of them, the aggressive drivers are causing one third of all our traffic crashes. But inattentive or distracted driving is becoming more of a problem as people “multitask” by talking on the phone, texting or checking messages, munching, or even watching YouTube as they drive. And there are also three-wheelers and motor cyclists who are the worst culprits. We cannot control the actions of other drivers. Yet, developing our defensive driving skills can, to a large extent, help us avoid the dangers caused by other people’s bad driving.
As part of the defensive driving system, there is also an internationally accepted driver-training technique known as “Smith System.” In addition to behind-the-wheel driver instruction and classroom training, Smith System recommends a number of simple techniques. Following are five of them: (1) Be alert and focused so as to avoid collisions and, in particular, the rear-end. (2) Identify the hostile and erratic drivers and always be aware of your surroundings and keep your vehicle safe from such potential dangers. (3) Keep your eyes on the road consistently and in alert mode by moving eyes regularly. (4) Ensure you are not boxed by other drivers while they are selecting their lanes. (5) Make sure that other drivers in your surrounding see you. Let them anticipate your moves. This is exactly what Sri Lanka lacks. Most of our driver trainers are either not knowledgeable or mot concerned in teaching their trainees the techniques of defensive driving.
The UN declared the years 2011-2020 as the “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” Now we are in the last year of the decade. The goal of the campaign was to reduce the number of people killed on the roads by 50% by 2020. How did we fare? It is obvious, we have not done well. And now, we have UN sponsored “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals” which has set a target of halving the number of deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2030. If Sri Lanka plans to meet at least that target there is an urgent need to take drastic measures.
Most important of all, the Government should formulate an up-to-date National Road Safety Policy. This Policy should outline various policy measures such as promoting awareness, establishing road safety information data base, encouraging safer road infrastructure including application of intelligent transport, enforcement of safety laws etc. It should also touch on driver training institutes to make themselves more conversant in modern driving techniques.
We also have a National Council for Road Safety with a mission of “To create a society free of Road accidents.” I believe it should be converted into the apex body to take policy decisions in matters of road safety. The Ministry must request all Provincial Councils to set up Road Safety Councils and Provincial Road Safety Committees, and to work with the National Council for Road Safety.
I believe the Council must also give attention to two important issues. Firstly, the driver training institutes should be updated, through “Train the Trainer” programs. They must be kept regularly updated with the latest training techniques.
Secondly, the driving test should be more stringent than what is presently done. It is common knowledge that in any activity, higher the education and training, better the performance would be. There is little use in imposing the heavy penalties and blaming only the drivers for road accidents. Better training and stringent testing of drivers would, no doubt, significantly help reduce road traffic accidents at a relatively low cost.
The Ministry must set up model driving training institutes in provinces and refresher training to drivers of heavy motor vehicle, including buses, in the unorganized sector. Enacting and enforcing legislation on key behavioural risk factors including speed, drunk-driving and failing to use motorcycle helmets, seat-belts and child restraints are critical components of an integrated strategy to prevent road traffic deaths. Our police are not equipped to do a good job in the implementation of such a piece of legislation. The small sprats will get caught and large sharks will get away free. They may have their own constraints.
"Defensive driving is a more advanced course in driver and passenger safety. It involves learning a more proactive attitude behind the wheel, anticipating potential hazards instead of simply reacting to them."
Therefore, Ministry should consider seriously introducing Vehicle Telematics Surveillance System. Vehicle telematics can monitor and harvest data from any moving asset, like a car, truck, bus. They can measure location, time, and velocity, safety metrics such as excessive speed, sudden breaking, rapid lane changes, or stopping in an unsafe location. It may be an expensive investment. Yet, the income generated from fines will offset a portion of that cost. A public-private partnership model may be the solution.
While the Government intensifies its public education on road safety programmes, the media too should support to heighten the awareness creation. There was a time many decades ago when the Traffic Police went to schools and gave live demonstrations of Road Safety.
It seems time is now ripe to resume such campaigns in a much broader context covering not only schools, but Government and mercantile establishments. Our religious leaders and social leaders also have major roles to play. They should sensitize their followers or supporters as well as members of the public on the menace of road accidents in the country.
And also, it is time our National Safety Council to pioneer a proper Defensive Driving Course. Large number of developed and developing countries have done that. For example, in Canada, the National Safety Council offers many defensive driving course training classes throughout the country. The demand for defensive driving classes is growing. In urban areas, an instructor usually has several classes a week.
As the ending note, I would like to quote what traffic expert, retired DIG T. Perinbanayagam said in an interview: “The main reason for the increase in motor accidents is due to the Department of Motor Traffic, because all those who eventually meet with accidents are those who have been tested and passed by this same Department. This Department has not yet come up with elaborate research findings as to why and how most accidents take place, what steps need to be taken to minimize/prevent traffic collisions.”
The isolated or ad-hoc solutions will not help combat the issue. To draft a sustainable solution and make it effective, it is imperative to have a great political will and commitment.