Reflections on a road death

road.jpg (16163 bytes)by Sisira Edirippulige
I was deeply saddened to hear about a woman being killed in an accident in Nugegoda on the 15 th of June. At the same time, to be honest, it did not surprise me at all. I left Sri Lanka for Kobe-Japan where I work, just a few days ago, after attending my father’s funeral held in Udahamulla. I used that very pedestrian crossing many times during my short visit and each time I asked myself ‘how come that people do not get killed in this chaotic traffic mess?’.

Two possible answers to this naive questions came to mind. One, I thought it might have something to do with this arrogance that Sri Lankans seem to have, viz., ‘our drivers are the best in the world’. I have heard Sri Lankans, especially those who live overseas, saying ‘after driving in Colombo, you can drive anywhere in the world’. I have also heard said that ‘Sri Lankan drivers are highly respected for their driving skills and are preferred as drivers abroad’. I thought, perhaps it is this unique skill for driving that prevents people getting killed on the roads.

However, I was more inclined to think of another reason. I thought that it may be the amazing talent that our people have to survive on the roads. I have seen old men and women, children, parents with kids, the blind, the disabled etc. crossing roads in Nugegoda, Maharagama, and in other crowded parts of Colombo and do it in a such a skillful manner to boot. They even sprint in front of private buses that are chasing rival buses. But they still remain alive.

I saw one middle aged woman being nearly run over by a bus while crossing the road in Udahamulla. What surprised me was the expression that she had on her face after the incident. There was no shock or terror, but a broad smile. She had almost been killed by a vehicle a moment before and had precipitated a heavy shower of swear words (in pure Sinhala local dialect) coming through the driver’s wide open window. And still that lady could smile. This moved me deeply.

No doubt that our people have a repertoire of unbelievable skills to survive. They survived famine, drought, terror, lies and blackouts. They have been cultivating resistance and tolerance to live under all kinds of miseries and have learned to regard these as integral elements of their life. For such a nation, this transport nuisance is not a ‘big deal’.

Motor vehicle accidents are not big news in today’s world. Thousands of accidents take place in cities and hundreds of people die as a result. Often it is reckless driving or drunken driving that is primarily responsible for such occurrences and governments around the world are increasingly seeking to deal with this by imposing massive fines and strict traffic laws.

However, the death at Nugegoda junction is something more than an ordinary motor vehicle accident. Though reckless driving and drunk-drive are not uncommon in Sri Lanka, running over a woman at the Nugegoda junction has to be viewed in the broader context of an overall transport crisis in the island.

The massive number of imported motor vehicles have exceeded the carrying capacities of the roads and no viable solution has been found to the transport demands of a growing urban population. The poor quality of roads, traffic congestion, air and noise pollution are just a few of the related problems.

Transportation is defined as ‘conveying or delivering from one place to another’. The delivery can be goods or people and undoubtedly there must be a clear distinction about the way these two different categories are delivered. It is true, as some say, that transport reflects the level of sophistication of a society. Definition of transportation or understanding of what transport is, in our country, has been simplified to its primitive level where transportation means delivering with no regard to what is being transported or how. No elaboration is needed on this point as all of us travel everyday in those buses where passengers are not counted as humans, (not even as cattle probably), but as countable things which needed to be delivered for a given fare from one place to another.

During my recent visit, I had to go to the General Hospital to see a dermatologist. I had an appointment to see the doctor at 9 o’clock in the morning. My brother advised me to leave home early, as I was going from Udahamulla. He pointed out that morning traffic is heavy, especially since it was a working day. I got on a bus at 7.30 at Delkanda Handiya. By the time my bus arrived at Kirulapone, it was 20 minutes to 9. I was in a panic as I was getting late, but the rest of the passengers didn’t seem to be the least perturbed. I looked at the middle-aged woman sitting next to me, and asked what time she is supposed to be at work. She smiled lightly and said she is already late.

I got out of the bus and asked the driver of a three-wheeler if he could take me to the General Hospital. After a brief discussion to negotiate the fare, he took off. Running though the traffic, finding every possible gap to sneak through, the three- wheeler driver seemed quiet comfortable in that traffic mess. It was like that small machine was mocking the BMWs and Mercedes that were frozen on the road. I thought this three-wheeler is the outcome of a process such as biological selection, specifically designed to deal with the traffic situation in our country.

Nothing to be too happy about, though. The way the driver was riding that small machine stunned me. There were no traffic rules as far as he was concerned. He was running his three-wheeler on the side where opposite traffic was coming. He took U turns wherever he desired. At times, he moved right in front of heavy trucks and buses that could crush us. There is no doubt in my mind that these three-wheelers, a product of the chaos itself, have complicated the traffic mess in urban areas. As far as my hospital trip was concerned, I was pretty sure that he was going to bring me to the hospital by 9.00, if not to the dermatologist, the accident ward at least.

I am not talking about extra-comfort, luxurious transport needs or the aesthetic aspects of a transportation system. The problem of the transport system in our country has been that not even rudimentary standards are maintained, such as the height of the vehicle where people can stand upright without seeing forced to stop, or how many people must be loaded so that people do not suffocate. It is beyond my imagination how those buses are driven, as the drivers are in eternal competition to load passengers. I am surprised how people do not get hurt in the buses when drivers slam breaks with no regard for the passengers. And of course, I don’t have to say anything about the rude and arrogant way in which bus drivers and conductors treat passengers.

You might think that I am writing out of mindless indignation, or that I am someone who has forgotten the realities on the ground. What I mean to emphasize is this reality on the ground is wrong and has been imposed on us. I grant, of course, that this is an issue that transcends the issue of transportation. Until we realize that what is on the ground is not a reality that is unchanging and unchangeable, our country’s problems, transportation included, will not be resolved.

It is common knowledge that infrastructure is basic to economic and social development of a country. Some three decades back, Sri Lanka used to boast about its well-developed road network in the third world. But the problem has been that leaders of our country have never had the vision to go beyond that third world level which has gradually made Sri Lanka a country that has one of the worst road networkds in the third world. Any government that is serious about economic growth must take on the transport problem as something that has to be addressed urgently.

The outburst of the public over the killing of a woman at Nugegoda junction where rioters attacked some 20 private buses, still awaits explanation. Surely it is different from the recent riots in Moscow where drunken football fans attacked foreigners out of anger after being defeated. Nevertheless, I think that there is one similar emotion what drove both sets of rioters on the rampage. It is the feeling of defeat. No matter how tolerant our people are, no matter how much resistance they have developed, we are fast approaching that point when anger will not stay subdued or suppressed within. It has to erupt. The Nugegoda incident is only a warning sign.

Nugegoda is my home-town and not too long ago I was also one of those private-tuition-going students who are accused of vandalizing private buses after such tragedies. I cannot say for sure that I would not have been among the vandals had I been there at that time. Also, I would not have been surprised if it was I that was run over.