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Finance Minister, Ravi Karunanayake appears ready for bare-knuckled combat with irresponsible motorists. And he vows that he would not be pulling his punches on hitting them where it hurts most – in their wallets. Now, that in the estimation of many analysts is the most creative conjuring aspect of his Budget 2017 reading.

Surely, no one can squabble with Karunanayake’s logic, particularly in the light of the alarming number of road tragedies. The number of road deaths hit a record high last year with over 2,817 people killed and 50,000 injured. These needlessly lost lives were attributed mostly to reckless and drunk driving.

Karunanayake said the government would not shilly-shally in its commitment to make Sri Lankan roads safer by instilling a greater sense of discipline and respect for traffic rules by slapping high fines on offenders. The minister pointed out that traffic fines proposed in the Budget were not a revenue-garnering measure, but designed to ensure a deterrent against a repetition of such offences. If the revised hiked penalties for traffic violations aim at killing the proverbial ‘two birds with one stone’ conjecture, it would be a doubly innovative measure.

Yet they are being welcomed by the public at large, while the criticisms have come mainly from private bus owners and motorcyclists, two segments of the motoring fraternity who have been accused of breaking road rules with impunity. As Minister Karunanayake rightly said: “The motive of those who oppose the fines appears to be that they want the government to give them a free license to kill at will and get away with highway murder.”
Sri Lanka has one of the worst road safety records in the whole world, with an average of six road deaths every day. The number of injured road users is much higher. The accident rate has reached a critical point that any delay in taking tougher measures will result in a further deterioration of road discipline and of course, more deaths and injuries.

Lamentably, our nation has earned itself the discreditable distinction of being home to some of the most reckless drivers on earth. The reality that this country has recorded one of the highest rates of death and injury from road accidents in the world serves to reinforce the statement to a large degree.

Yet, as in every progressive measure its implementation is usually far dodgier than meets the eye in the practicality sphere. The big buck question that demands a sensible answer is: Who is there to monitor the law enforcers who at present are the arbiters of such violations? It would be the cops for sure. But the problem is that the once largely proud image of the police has taken one heck of a beating. Since 2013 and for several years running, Sri Lanka’s general public has ranked the Police as the most corrupt institution in the country. And traffic duty cops have been singled out as among the most dishonest among the lot.

One practicable suggestion to beat the kickbacks system would be to necessitate some of the gazetted officers to tear their welded bottoms from their cushy chairs and lead their subordinates on the streets while monitoring traffic particularly at rush hour and at the most identified flashpoints where gridlock occurs.

But with an unprecedented number of accidents last year the coppers have deservingly been copping some flak.  Yet, many of these accidents could have been avoided if the allied authorities responsible for traffic management and road safety assist the law-enforcers by doing their own jobs. In thousands of instances certain corrupt examiners in the Registrar of Motor Vehicles Office (RMV) have been issuing driving licences to incompetent persons without even the benefit of a road test. The upshot of all this is that there are at large on our roadways thousands of inept, untrained and irresponsible people at the controls of lethal killing machines.

What many of these corrupt RMV officials are culpable of is issuing unqualified individuals a licence to kill and converting our roadways into veritable tracks of death. But our capital, Colombo and bigger townships in particular seem to have established another all-time record for its disproportionate number of home-grown, hare-brained jaywalkers and pedestrians who push bravado to the very limits of suicidal stupidity. Still, for several maniacal motorists life in the country’s fast lane is all part of the fun.

For normal road users driving in Colombo and most of our roadways has become a motorist’s nightmare. Manoeuvring on our roadways is a spine-jangling bob-and weave, a larger than life but more lethal adventure than the fun park dodgems. You have to in addition contend with the kamikaze motorcyclists, the bobsledding three-wheelers who break every code of the highway and push-cyclists who appear totally oblivious to the dangers of death and destruction swirling around them.

Many of them appear to be steered by the deranged, the carefree and the blind. Then there are the  muscle-vehicles which are not averse to engaging in a good deal of fender-banding and fender flexing types of swank all-terrain luxury VIP vehicles who imagine that they have a proprietary right of way. Or to put it in another way they actually think they are more equal than the average vehicles plying the same public roadways.

To some at the wheel of the highway behemoths such as container trucks, dumpers, fuel bowser trucks and buses the rest of the vehicles on the road are regarded as mere playthings, typical hindrances to be badgered and bullied.  The biggest danger perhaps is when these juggernauts rollercoaster out of control crushing and mangling any and everything in their path.

In most cases, the crashes could have been avoided if only the cops and the associated authorities do what is really expected of them. In every instance the lives of the mangled and lost victims’ families have been changed forever.

Karunanayake’s critics have lambasted his Budget 2017 as a damp squib that has subtly added to the economic burdens of the people. One tends to agree with most of those criticisms over cuts on social spending and increases on a range of taxes and levies, which is a direct assault on the social conditions of the working class and the poor. But he certainly deserves a pat on the back for his stance on enforcing road discipline, which is viewed by many as the best and most innovative component of his budget.
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