Modern public transportation in our country dates back to 1902. The first ever car entered our shores, an 8 HP single cylinder Rover brought down by Edgar Money - a local British businessman. The country’s passenger bus service commenced in 1907 when a private bus ran from Chilaw to Colombo. Since then bus transport has been the most common form of public transport in the country.
The first bus was imported in 1907 and bus transport began as an owner-operated service. There were no regulations. Buses packed to capacity were driven at high speed, even at bends on the roads. Scrambles for loads, sometimes ended in fisticuffs or even in stabbings.
These and other malpractices in pursuit of maximum profit compromised safety and comfort. This resulted in the setting up of the limited liability omnibus companies around 1940. Legislation was also strengthened in 1951 to control the companies. However, the service provided continued to deteriorate.
The deteriorating services led to several commissions of inquiry, the Ratnam Survey in 1948, the Sansoni Survey in 1954 and the Jayaratna Perera Survey.
In 1958, in order to provide a better service to the people, the government of late premier SWRD Bandaranaike nationalised the bus services and established the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB).
The creation of a single nationalised entity made possible long distance operations and running buses on a large number of rural routes.
An oft quoted incident captured the spirit of that time. The story of a police constable who insisted on paying his fare, saying the CTB belonged to the people of then Ceylon all needed to play a role to make it a success.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since those heady days of patriotism. Politicians began meddling in the running of the Board, and except for the time Anil Munasinghe chaired the board, the CTB turned into a loss-making institution.
However overcrowding, uncomfortable conditions, unreliable bus timetables and poor services offered by the SLTB led to the breaking up of its monopoly and the opening up of a state-owned cum private public sector in 1977.
Since then, trains, motorcycles and even three-wheeled vehicles have become part of Sri Lanka’s public transportation infrastructure. Of these, buses are the most common method of transport with both public and private bus companies operating throughout the country.
However, the safety of persons on our roads is far worse than it used to be.
While the bus system is vast, the service provided is poor, buses are still frequently overcrowded, with passengers hanging on footboards.
The seats are uncomfortable and there is little or no air flow. Buses are also frequently delayed, and timetables are unreliable, causing problems for commuters who need to be at work or school on time.
In addition, the increase in both private bus operators and the increased vehicular traffic ranging from motorcycles to three-wheeler vehicles and lorries/trucks have made our roads a far more dangerous place for life and limb.
Statistics show motorcycles, lorries, and dual-purpose vehicles have caused the most number of accidents. In the three years, -2016 to 2018- motorcycles caused a total of 3,682 deaths while lorries a total of 1,072 deaths.
Media reports and statistics of the National Council for Road Safety (NCRS) reveal road accidents that took place between 2016 and 2019 have resulted in a total of 12,030 deaths.
Statistics showed that a total of 3,097 and 2,829 deaths had been reported in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Media reports show pedestrians and motorcyclists topped the list of persons who died due to road accidents in 2019, while passengers were in the fourth place.
Separately a UNFPA study reveals that 90% of the female respondents were affected by sexual harassment in public buses and trains at least once in their lifetime, thus highlighting the severity of the issue.
It is a widely held belief among the public that accidents are caused by driver/rider negligence, police looking the otherway and political meddling.
As with other problems in our country the only remedy is the strict application of the law and an end to political meddling.