Just where is the government going with its policy on road traffic accidents?
The decision to impose a minimum fine of 2500 rupees for any traffic offence, announced first in the Budget, was commendable. However, what has happened since then brings back memories of the 2015 budget which eventually ended in a shambles, with most proposals being watered down or even withdrawn.
When the 2500 rupee fine was announced the Lanka Private Bus Operators Association (LPBOA) protested loudly, threatening to launch an island-wide strike. Following discussions the LPBOA had with Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, that strike didn’t eventuate.
Nevertheless, the government has now come up with a new set of proposals which, it could be argued, are even more stringent. It has identified seven specific offences for which the prescribed fine would be a whopping 25,000 rupees.
The offences so listed include drunk driving, driving an uninsured vehicle, driving without a valid licence, speeding, overtaking from the left side, driving across unprotected rail-crossings and allowing a person without a valid licence to drive.
Now, no right-thinking person would dispute the need for enhanced fines as a deterrent to our daredevil motorists who drive with callous disregard for life and limb. This come-what-may style of driving must be dealt with and it can only be dealt with through harsh penalties.
The statistics support this argument. In 2015, a staggering 2800 persons – or a mind boggling fifteen persons every two days – lost their lives due to fatal road traffic accidents. That would be much more than the death toll at the height of the Eelam war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
This is also about a 12 per cent rise from the previous year suggesting that despite all the fuss about more stringent policing and enforcement of road rules, our drivers are still hell-bent on creating havoc on our roads. It is not an issue authorities can choose to ignore.
In such a context, it is perfectly understandable for a government to come up with measures that some may perceive as draconian to try and put an end to this culture of reckless driving. However, it must do so with proper preparation and after consulting all stakeholders involved.
What has happened until now doesn’t suggest that this has been done. There was an initial proposal in the budget which, in hindsight, seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the high death toll from accidents.
Then, when the LPBOA was up in arms, that proposal was seemingly shelved, only to be replaced by another suggestion to impose fines that are ten-fold higher, but for a series of more ‘serious’ offences.
The rationale behind the decision is that the fines should be of a sufficient magnitude so as to be a deterrent to drivers. That is a sensible argument but the details behind the move are unclear and leave enough room to create even more confusion.
For instance, speeding is listed as one of the offences punishable with a 25,000 rupee fine. While it is an offence and needs to be deplored, it is also a relatively common occurrence. Besides, would clocking 50 kilometres an hour in a 40 kilometres per hour zone also earn you a 25,000 rupee penalty?
Then, there is the issue about how these penalties are to be implemented. Even now, there are plenty of allegations against the Police for allegedly taking bribes in lieu of imposing fines on motorists. That is in a scenario where the fines are a few hundred rupees. One can only imagine the furore it will create if the fines were to be increased to 25,000 rupees.
These are matters the government needs to think through without simply announcing increased fines as a means of curbing fatal road traffic accidents. There needs to be co-ordination between the Ministry of Transport, the Police and other stakeholders such as the LPBOA before rushed announcements are made in the media. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.
Yes, none of us want to die at the hands of a reckless driver. In trying to achieve that though, the means should justify the end.