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The Time: 10.30 am
Place: Along D. R. Wijewardene Mawatha, Maradana end
Scene: Long distance buses parked after all night journeys from out stations and drivers sleeping before return trip.

Most bus drivers are asleep in their  buses  around 11.00 am. Palitha who works a Kandy-Colombo bus said he works 22 days a month and has been working since the 1980s. On that day they had left Kandy at 5.45 am reaching Colombo around 9.15.  The next trip was at 2.30 pm.

A lot of the bus drivers were asleep or refused to comment because they wanted to sleep before the next trip.
A bus driver working in a Wilachchiya-Colombo bus said he leaves Wilachchiya in Anuradhapurapura, daily around 2.30 in the morning and reaches Colombo by 8.15 a.m. Again he leaves Colombo at 1.10 pm. He sleeps in between trips. If there are repairs however, he doesn’t get to sleep at all. But he said not getting enough sleep has not necessarily affected his work. “Being a long distance bus driver is more of a lifestyle than a job. We are now used to it,” he said.

Tharaka, a driver of a Moneragala-Colombo bus said he leaves Moneragala everyday at 1.50 am and reaches Colombo around 9 am. He parks the bus on DR Wijewardena Mawatha. He gets around six days off per month. On this particular day he drives back to Moneragala getting off at 9.00 pm, but, has to report back at 12.00 am. Although hectic, he said he enjoyed the work. Tharaka has been a driver for four years. He said he can’t recall ever being sleepy during work.

Although most of the drivers were nonchalant about their woes, the truth of the matter was that some of them preferred not to discuss their problems with the employers because bus owners, instead of attempting to solve the problem tended to find younger substitutes who are willing and able to work for extended hours, at cheaper wages. Out of fear for their jobs, drivers who have families to feed, avoid complaining lest they upset their bosses.

However, Gamini, an SLTB bus driver was more outspoken. Driving a Mullativu-Colombo bus, Gamini barely gets to sleep in between trips. The bus leaves Mullaitivu at 10 pm and reaches Colombo around 5 am. “Only one stop for tea,” says Gamini. At Colombo, he has to wait for the turn. He said the timekeeper decides what time he must leave. Irrespective of what time he leaves he has to be in Mullaitivu at 10 pm again. Then he can hand over the bus and the next driver takes over from him. So every driver works 24 hours with few precious little breaks in between.
He suggested that a better option is to have two drivers per bus. Two years ago a driver died close to the STF camp in Puttalam when he fell asleep at the wheel, disclosed Gamini. “It can happen to anybody”. He pointed out that when the drivers are not properly rested, it puts the lives of passengers in danger as well. The accident had taken place around 1.45 in the morning.

Medical opinion

Discussing aspects pertaining to occupation health and safety and the management of fatigue, family physician and medical consultant Dr. CM Asela Anthony while confirming that sleep deprivation and fatigue adversely impacted performance including reflexes and the reaction time of drivers of heavy and commercial vehicles such as buses, trucks and lorries, when faced with emergency situations, said that the lack of proper places to get adequate rest was a major issue overlooked in the transport system. “Facilities for such must be provided,” emphasized Dr. Anthony.

He observed that although drivers had adopted their own ways of combating fatigue and drowsiness by way of chewing betel, listening to music, using drugs, cannabis and marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol, adjusting the air-conditioning to cooler or warmer temperatures as per one’s preference, splashing water on the face, drinking coffee, stretching, walking and engaging in conversation. But research has shown that none of the practices works.

The long-term solution is to catch up on sleep, at least for six hours.

“Physical fitness and one’s age matters. Proper nutrition in the form of consuming a balanced diet bolstered by an adequate water intake of between two and a half litres to three daily is essential in this regard. The employer should be responsible for regular medical check-ups. Drivers have to be taught and educated on what to do,” Dr. Anthony emphasized.

An important factor that is not taken into consideration is the fitness level of the drivers. The police check for the driving licence, the insurance and the revenue licence but do not check whether the driver is fit enough. Many buses and trucks travel for hundreds of kilometres from one destination to another. Many of them would have to travel the same distance after a brief rest.
Passengers generally are not bothered to check whether the driver is in the right physical shape or frame of mind to take them safely to their destinations hundreds of kilometres away. The question that arises here is who is responsible to check the conditions of the drivers, especially those driving heavy vehicles.

NTC recommendations

The National Council for Road Safety meanwhile pointed out that heavy duty vehicle operators had to renew their licenses every three years and submit to a mandatory medical checkup in the process. Chairman of the Council, Dr. Sisira Kodagoda said that their physical fitness, eyesight and ability to steer were checked along with whether they suffered from non-communicable diseases and whether they were undergoing treatment.
“For example, if the driver has diabetes and has in the past slipped into a diabetes induced coma, even if the person has since recovered, the license is not renewed as they are considered not fit to drive”, he further explained.

Conditions laid down  by the National Transport Commission (NTC), tasked with granting passenger transport permits, stipulate that a bus driver and conductor should only work for eight hours per shift, and buses travelling long distance routes such as from Colombo to Jaffna where the duration of such journeys exceed eight hours, the driver should maintain two crews for their operation. According to the admission of a Director, in charge of Planning at the NTC, the flying squads of the NTC are however unable to catch the vast majority who don’t observe this regulatory condition.

The NTC conducts trainings for drivers and employs flying squads which look into violations of conditions. There are specific conditions depending on the type of bus. There are four categories; normal, semi-luxury, luxury and super luxury. A fleet of 7000 buses in Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara come under the purview of the Road Passenger Transport Authority (Western Province).

Current road safety situation

There is a five-year national plan from 2015 to 2020 for the reduction of road accidents and fatalities related to road accidents. In 2015, there were 2601 fatal accidents claiming the lives of 2817 persons made up of 808 pedestrians, 837 motorcyclists, 189 pillion riders, 202 drivers, 502 passengers, 266 cyclists and 13 other deaths. Last year, there were 2824 accidents resulting in 3003 deaths accounting for 876 pedestrians, 948 motorcyclists, 209 pillion riders, 252 drivers, 469 passengers, 244 cyclists and five other deaths. A survey conducted in this regard by the NCRS has revealed that the majority of the fatal accidents involved motorcyclists and three-wheeler drivers.

The plan is to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities by half. How can this be done? Given below are the most pressing concerns in relation to road safety and the measures taken thus far and those which are in the pipeline as far as implementation is concerned.

“The action plan at present is to install a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device in each bus, covering the buses from start to end route by route. Some have the GPS while some don’t. Some who have it, travel at top speeds and try their level best to break it. Even the bus owners are in the dark of certain offences that are committed. Complaints can be made by dialing 1955. Elsewhere, there are plans to subsidize services in rural areas,” the NTC Director emphasized.

Drugs and alcohol

Certain drivers of buses on long distances, both private and State-owned are addicted to  alcohol and various drugs, especially Babul – a betel quid.

Dr. Kodagoda added that the Motor Traffic Act would soon be amended to include the prohibition of the use of drugs and urine samples would be obtained to prove the presence of drugs in the driver’s system.

“At present, driving under the influence of liquor carries a fine of Rs 25,000. The amendment seeks to make the fine for drug use Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 and even allow three months imprisonment at the discretion of a judge or magistrate.

Fines

The Government’s previous proposal to increase fines imposed on seven traffic related offences including drunk driving, speeding – the limit being 70 km/h – overtaking from the left side, driving across level crossings when the gate is closed, driving without a valid license, driving without a valid insurance certificate and assigning someone without a valid driving license to drive the vehicle, to Rs 25,000 is under review after appeals to President Maithripala Sirisena.

The minimum fine for some of these offences is Rs 2500. Private bus owners and drivers have objected to the increases. They have communicated these concerns in writing, to a committee chaired by the Secretary – Ministry of Transport appointed to look review the fines.

The committee has since proposed that if the speed the vehicle travels at is 80 km/h, the fine would be Rs 6,000, if the speed is between 90 km/h and 100 km/h, the fine is Rs 10,000, and if the speed exceeds 130 km/h, the fine is Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000. The fines are not spot fines, but to be taken up in courts. The private bus operators have protested and were granted   two weeks to submit their final proposals. The deadline was March 1. The final report will be submitted to the President who will make a ruling.

Pics by Musthaq Thasleem

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