When to take the keys away?


According to a recent study on road safety investment in South Asia by World Bank Group (WBG), the estimated annual road crash deaths per capita in Sri Lanka are twice the average rate in high-income countries and five times that of the best performing countries in the world. Available data indicate an average of 38,000 crashes annually which result in around 3,000 fatalities and 8,000 serious injuries. Sri Lanka has the worst road fatality rate among its immediate neighbours in the South Asia region.

The study also reveals the crisis that has been exacerbated by the rapid growth in vehicle ownership and diversity of motorised and non-motoriesd traffic of varying sizes and speeds, without adequate protection for the most vulnerable. Vehicle ownership in Sri Lanka is already high by regional standards and grew by 67 per cent between 2011 and 2018. If this trend continues, as expected, crash fatalities and injuries will steadily climb— unless urgently required measures are implemented.

Meanwhile, an accident was recently reported on 17 July where a 32-year-old pregnant woman and her husband met with their untimely death after a speeding van knocked them down at Burutha Junction in Buttala on the Buttala-Wellawaya Road. Police said the pregnant woman and her 37-year-old husband were walking on the side of the road when the van hit them. The couple upon admission to Buttala Hospital succumbed to serious injuries. The deceased had been residents of Kudaoya, Buttala. Police said the driver of the van had fled soon after the incident. However, the Police had later arrested him during a search operation.

The highlight of the said hit-and-run accident was that the Police investigation had revealed that the driver’s left leg had been amputated and was, hence wearing a prosthetic leg.

In another incident a 13-year-old had sustained serious leg-injuries as a result of being knocked down by a car driven by a 75-year-old man on 2 May in Torrington Avenue. The suspect who had fled the scene was later identified through CCTV footages. The footage showed that the victim was walking on the sideways of the road before being hit by the moving car.

This incident exposed a shortcoming of the Sri Lankan driving licence issuing system.  According to the Motor Traffic Act, Replacement of driving licences. [5, 44 of 1992] 126A., the driving licence was provided for the lifetime of the holder if it wasn’t damaged.

“Replacement of driving licences. [5, 44 of 1992] 126A. (1) Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Act, the Minister may, by Order published in the Gazette, declare that every driving licence issued or deemed to be issued under this Act, bearing a serial number specified in the Order, shall be replaced with a driving licence in the form of a card in the prescribed form and fix such date as he may deem suitable for the invalidation of the first mentioned licence, so issued, notwithstanding that such licence has been issued for a specified period or for the lifetime of the holder.”

This being the regulatory position, there obviously is a mechanism in place, to keep track on aging of the licence holder or any disabilities or diseases that can affect the safety of the drivers, passengers and pedestrians.  

In the first incident, the disability of a driver claimed three lives and in the second, the mother grieves over the child’s leg being dysfunctional due to serious bone fracture.

When Ceylon Today inquired from the Department of Motor Traffic, Commissioner General Sumith Alahakoon said, there are four different types of driving licences issued during four different periods, and that all attempts to switch to or implement the up-to-date and viable licensing system and issuance as per the latest version were futile because there was much dissension and non-cooperation from the public. 

“In Sri Lanka, licences were issued during four different periods and only the latest version has stipulated a term of expiry date and provision for renewal every six years subject to a medical test. The previous versions do not include these pre-conditions except the renewal of licence when the original licence is disfigured or damaged.  We have already taken this matter up with the Department of Motor Traffic and suggested to the Ministry of Transport and Highways, to abolish all the previous versions of driving licences and take a policy decision where everyone will have to obtain or renew driving licences as per the latest, updated version that covers a medical test every six years, a method which is in line with international standards to facilitate healthy driving and road safety. We have sent the said Draft to the Cabinet as well,” he added.

Alahakoon further pointed out that the recommended renewal or licensing method is in the best interest of the public.

“With individual’s aging vision and declining health condition over time it is prudent for us to keep it under regular check, and more so, as far as driving is concerned,” he quipped.

Motor reflexes, also known as tendon reflexes, are caused by the automatic contraction of a tendon in reaction to a stimulus. Two of the most common are the ‘knee jerk’ reflex that is checked by a physician by tapping a patient’s knee, the usual checkup during the licence renewal to check the reaction time or speed at which one reacts to unexpected or sudden situations that could generally occur in the road.  As Alahakoon noted, the Motor reflexes of each individual declines with age. Since the existing driving licence system has no uniformity across all licence holders the proposed system, is vital to maintain road safety to acceptable standards.

According to the study, on road safety investment in South Asia by WBG, driving licenses must be renewed every four years for heavy vehicles and every eight years for light motor vehicles.

Through this regulatory mechanism, an incompetent or ‘unfit driver’ could be brought to light and minimise the risk of a minor shortcoming or a careless mistake that would otherwise result in a major disaster and put many lives at stake.

By Nabiya Vaffoor