Monday 20 August 2001
EDITORIAL, DAILY NEWS
high price of road disasters
It could be seen that there is a progressive worsening of road indiscipline, incurring staggering costs, particularly in human terms. Colombo, as is evident, is the scene of some of the most horrific road accidents, despite the Traffic Police apparently going all out to enforce road rules and discipline. We are perceptive of the present pressures on the law enforcement authorities and wouldn’t rush to conclusions about their effectiveness in curbing road indiscipline but would urge the stringent and impartial enforcement of the law.
Driving on our highways today has degenerated into a hair-raising nightmare. The drivers of private coaches and buses are the worst offenders but they are not the only ones. A considerable number of drivers of private vehicles, many of them cars, do not seem to care a rap for road rules. Quite a number of road accidents could still be attributed to the “nut behind the wheel” and most of them are dangerous and uncaring.
The “gay abandon” with which some of our motorists violate road rules gives rise to the suspicion that quite a number of them do not possess the basic competence to drive. How come then that they are provided the licences to drive? These problems have been investigated in the past and all that we could say is that the highest standards in skills and competence should be maintained in issuing driving licences to applicants. If the procedures and rules regulating the issue of licences are stringently observed, less “nuts” would be given the licence to terrorise our highways.
A mood of panic and arrogance also tends to seize some of our motorists when they get behind the wheel. This is not peculiar only to private bus drivers. Even “respectable” private car drivers tend to bulldoze their way through our highways with hardly a care for other road users. This mental malaise has its roots in an individualistic culture where individual interests take precedence over the collective interests of society. Such problems should be dealt with in the value-formation process of individuals, initially at home and at school.
We also urge that the toughest punishments be meted out to bus drivers who violate road rules. Those found guilty of drunken and hazardous driving, for instance, should be required to forego their driving licenses. The installation of spy cameras on major highways will enable the authorities to nab all violators of road rules, thus making motorists more law-abiding.
on the tracks
The Island will be happy to present Mr Gunawardena with some of these articles because the Public Relations Department of the Railways (if there is one) appears to be deaf and dumb to the constructive criticism offered by Dr. Wingler. The railway officials have not cared to reply to even one of the articles written by this engineer, who predicted that disasters, such as that which occurred at Alawwa, were inevitable. Under prevailing conditions, he had provided pictures showing the glaring defects and the dangers that lurk ahead for rail commuters. But the railway authorities do not seem to give a damn to this well-meaning advice. Probably they too are aware of the lurking dangers, but the inefficiency, corruption and gross negligence that have taken over the railways since the departure of legendary railway men, such as the former General Manager, the late Mr. B.D. Rampala, predominate.
In an article headlined: ‘Around and around the rail track’, published in The Island of February 28, 2001, Dr. Wingler wrote: Despite the high investment and the recent overseas-assisted rehabilitation programmes, there is not a single mile of stable long-lasting and nearly maintenance-free and hump-free track in Sri Lanka that can compete with thousands of miles of rehabilitated rail tracks in other developing countries like India, China, Mongolia, Morocco.... etc.
On 22/9/2000, The Island published a letter written by Dr. Wingler to the General Manager, Railways, Mr. B.K.W. Weragama. In this letter, which The Island headlined as : ‘Trains with ‘blanked brakes’ on ‘warped tracks’, Mr. Wingler had told the General Manager, ‘I want to bring to your notice that this morning (September 16) while I was waiting at the Ambalangoda station to go to Wadduwa... I saw the train entering the station at 6. 35 a.m with no brake power at all. Although the train was running at a snail’s pace, the driver still could not bring it to a complete halt in time and the train went beyond the platform and entered the signal circuit for outgoing trains thus turning the red lights on... The train thereafter had to resort to engine retardation either to slow down or stop at stations. At the Kalutara railway station, I noticed the down express at 6.30 am with, ‘blanked brakes’— one brake shoe had turned the other way around and one compartment was completely without any brakes or blocks. The 9.25 am Maradana-bound slow train also had ‘blanked brakes’ and on three bogies the distance-holders for the suspension springs and axle bearing were missing.’
Following the collision of the Vavuniya-bound express from Matara with a vibration roller at an unprotected level crossing at Ambalangoda on April 25 this year, Dr. Wingler wrote to the Deputy Minister of Transport, Mr. Kumara Welgama, saying: ‘Awareness as regards accidents is woefully inadequate in the Railway Department. I learn that the safety standards are far below those expected of a modern railway service. Hence, the need for you to shoulder the responsibility to have required safety standards adopted by the department and to heighten awareness among railway workers.’ As proof of plummeting safety standards, he says that he found that in a rail car: ‘The driver had to manually connect two 24-volt cables to sound the horn!’
Trains without brake power, dangling brake shoes and the driver manually connecting high voltage cables to sound horns etc., were stuff for Charlie Chaplin movies of yore, but the Sri Lankan Railways seem to be carrying on regardless despite frequent derailments. A disaster like what happened on Saturday, it is apparent, was very much on the cards and it is fortunate that they did not take place more often.
The Island in an editorial on April 28, this year titled: ‘Whither Sri Lankan Railways?, called upon the government and the railway authorities to take note of the constructive criticism offered by Dr. Wingler and pay sufficient attention for the development of the railways. But who in the government heeds to advice, least of all from The Island! But whether the advice comes from us, the well meaning German engineer or anyone else, the government and the railway department should realise that they are dealing with the lives of thousands of commuters each day. There is enough and more murder and mayhem going on the land, sea and air. We don’t want murder on the rail tracks.
dubious first for Lanka
According to our own rough account last week alone accounted for no less than 22 serious accidents from around the country resulting in deaths of more than three dozen people and maiming several dozens more. Most are victims of speed maniacs and drunkards.
Why we fail to learn from such never ending callous loss of life and limb or take any remedial measures as in everything else in this country is that no one is held accountable. For example according to reports the Railway Department had been informed about the broken rail gate at Seeduwa over two months ago and yet it remained unprepared. The two days prior to Thursday’s bus tragedy there, which claimed ten lives and injured 25 others, a train had ploughed into a three-wheeler trying to creep through the same broken gate killing two occupants of the vehicle on the spot. We would like to ask the Department how many more deaths would it take for it to repair the gate.
At the same time it must also be noted that it is not only through broken rail gates that motorists creep through. This is a common practice at most rail crossings and police and other responsible authorities seem quite oblivious to such happenings. We ourselves have seen on countless occasions this happening near the crossing at Castle Street Maternity Hospital.
Some of the other notable accidents in recent weeks were four killed and sixteen injured when a bowser rammed into a passenger van at Dematagoda Junction, 14 killed 39 injured in a train derailment off Alawwa and 25 injured in a crash involving a lorry and two buses at Gansabha Junction Nugegoda.
Such blindness is nothing compared to the blindness of cops over drug dealers and boot-leggers in most areas. This has resulted in many minor employees like drivers being constantly intoxicated day or night. The driver of the ill-fated bus at Seeduwa had been so drunk; the tests had allegedly revealed that his body’s alcohol content was way above the legal limit. When legal and illegal taverns bloom at every street corner, what more can we say. And in many areas these hooch and drug barons are the ‘leading’ citizens organising political rallies, New Year festivals and what not with their ill-gotten wealth. Of course the stock reply of the Police Department will be it is badly short of men, but it cannot argue that its is short of women. Go to any police station and you will know the Department is certainly not short of women. So why can’t these WPCs be more widely deployed for street patrolling or just to be present at busy pedestrian crossings and even at railway crossings. It is mail chauvinism in the Department that prevents these women from being put to greater use.
If the argument is that their presence is not imposing enough to draw respect from the public, then dress them in combat gear, for what we have is a war. Female can be more lethal than the male. If you don’t believe us ask the Tigers.
Of course periodically politicos sing hosannas about cleaning up the country of such menaces and this Government too made a similar announcement about cutting down the number of liquor licences as recently as a few months back and it was duly given mass coverage in the media as for so many previous promises. Yes they all remain promises, for we are a nation always living on promises and short memories.
After causing a grave crime or an accident, the justice part of it is even more hilarious. Ask seasoned wrongdoers how to beat or even make a mockery of the system. They say first get advise from the prosecuting police officer and he will willingly give which lawyer to retain. The rest is plain sailing. How is it that virtually in all cases prosecuted by police in Magistrate Courts only one or two lawyers are retained repeatedly by accused after accused?
And in case of a serious accident, they say always surrender by palming at least Rs. 500 to officer involved in the investigation. As one wag sarcastically commented, then they can even make you the victim of the accident! Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva who is taking great pains to clean up the judicial system may fall far short of his expectations unless the above practices are tackled. For having improved infrastructure, trained staff etc. undoubtedly would be of immense help, but this cancer may eat into all that if not dealt with radical measures.
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