When Worlds Collide #115: Fast-tracking Road Safety in Sri Lanka

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 18 July 2014

Road safety infographic - courtesy WHO

Road safety infographic – courtesy WHO

The Apollo 8 space mission, which lasted from 21 to 27 December 1968, was the first time that a manned spacecraft left Earth orbit, travelled to the Moon and returned after taking a close look.

They didn’t land, but tested many procedures for the actual landing six months later. When they were heading back, a ground controller’s son wanted to know who was driving the spacecraft. Astronaut Bill Anders, replied: “I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving now.”

That witty summing up of celestial mechanics is one of the finest quotes of the entire Apollo space program. It comes to mind when I ask myself who — or what — is driving on our chaotic Lankan roads. My own answer: lots of testosterone!

Let me explain. The predominantly male sex hormone must account for at least part of the hazardous driving we see everyday.

No, I’m not reducing a complex phenomenon to a simple contrasting of boys vs. girls. But among the more bizarre excuses I have heard from serially erratic and offensive (male) drivers is that law-abiding and courteous driving is only for ‘sissies’.

Apparently, some – especially bus and truck drivers — consider it an affront to their ‘pirimi kama’ (masculinity) to play by road rules!

How does a society even begin to tackle such backward attitudes? This is why road safety is more than a mere law enforcement or traffic engineering problem. With some help from sociologists, we need to get inside the mindset of our drivers who knowingly break laws and turn our highways into killing fields.

Some argue that better education can lead to more disciplined and careful driving. However, the link isn’t so simple or linear. The way a person drives reflects his or her total personality – shaped by upbringing, culture, mindset and education. Social class or profession often has little to do with recklessness at the wheel.

 Understanding Statistics

Fuelled by many factors, road traffic crashes have reached alarming proportions in Sri Lanka. On average, six to seven persons are killed everyday somewhere on our roads. The 2012 death total, according to police records, was 2,361 (1,963 men and 398 women).

Many more were injured: 2012 grievous injuries totalled 8,460 (6,771 men and 1,689 women), and non-grievous injuries, 20,010 (14,999 men and 5,011 women).

Road traffic crashes 2012 cumulative data available on Sri Lanka official Open Data portal

Many of those killed or injured are younger men and women. Globally, too, road injuries have now become the number one killer of young people aged between 15 and 24.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, some 1.24 million people died needlessly and prematurely from road traffic crashes (RTCs) in 2010, the last year for which full data was available. That averages to 3,400 lives per day.

Although statistics cannot capture the grief and misery of losing a family member or friend, they indicate the massive personal and societal costs involved.

This problem has been building up for decades. Because deaths are scattered in space and across time, many of us didn’t notice the mounting losses until it was high.

In 2013, three Lankan researchers – Dr Samath D Dharmarathne, Dr Achala Upendra Jayatilleke and Achini C Jayatilleke – published an analysis of trends in road traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities in Sri Lanka from 1938 to 2010. Using police records, census and other official data, they found how total crashes had a marked increase (from 61.2 to 195.9 per 100,000 people) in those 72 years.

During that period, they noted in their paper in the global medical journal The Lancet (17 June 2013), total injuries went up from 35.1 to 133.2 per 100,000, and total deaths from 3.0 to 13.1 per 100,000. And our total registered vehicles increased by 143 times.

The researchers urged caution in interpreting such aggregated data. For example, while police data on the total number of crashes has shown a decrease since 2003, there has been no reduction in reported deaths. They speculate that this might be due to under-reporting of crashes (it was in 2003 that insurance companies introduced on-the-spot payment schemes).


Under-reporting of road accidents is common in the developing world, and distorts statistical analyses and policy responses. The World Bank says official government statistics “substantially under-report road injuries”.

Estimates based on Global Burden of Disease 2010 report, also prepared by WHO, suggest that actual road injury deaths are more than twice the official count in India, and four times in China. Lack of reliable data is one among many problems faced by policy makers trying to tackle road safety.

The United Nations system now considers road crashes a global public health crisis and development problem. In response, WHO has declared a Decade of Action for Road Safety, 2011-2020.

Global burden of disease from motorized road transport 2014 Report

Global burden of disease from motorized road transport 2014 Report

And the World Bank now encourages countries to consider the total health impacts from road transport covering both air pollution and crash injuries. When combined with the deaths arising from vehicle pollution, the road transport death toll exceeds that of, for example, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or diabetes, says a new report from the World Bank.

Writing a foreword to the report, titled ‘Transport for Health: The Global Burden of Disease from Motorized Road Transport’, the Bank’s President Dr Jim Yong Kim, says: “It is a matter of life, death, and equity: approximately 90% of all road crashes now happen in low- and middle-income countries; yet they own only half of the world’s motor vehicles. More than half of global deaths are among pedestrians and operators of motorized two-wheeled vehicles. Rates are higher in the world’s poorest regions.”

Dr Kim, himself a physician and anthropologist, adds: “These losses are tragic and needless. Families often lose their breadwinners or have to pay for expensive medical treatment. Many are plunged into poverty as a result.”

Road safety infographic - courtesy WHO

Road safety infographic – courtesy WHO

Act on many fronts

So what is to be done?

Enhancing road safety requires a multi-pronged approach. Stricter law enforcement, better built roads, and greater road discipline are all necessary – as are thoughtful urban design, infrastructure planning and sound transport policies at macro level.

The National Council of Road Safety (NCRS), under the Ministry of Transport, says action is to be taken on all five ‘pillars’ identified for strengthening during the Global Decade: road safety management, infrastructure, safe vehicles, road user behaviour, and post-crash care.

Researchers and civil society groups can study many facets of road safety, and help identify ‘policy blind spots’ and gaps in law enforcement.

For example, in an observational study conducted in 2009 in Kandy, researchers at Peradeniya University’s Faculty of Medicine found that most motorcycle riders (97%) used helmets. However, over three quarters (76.5%) of their child passengers did not – they were exempt from mandatory helmet law when in school uniform!

Blaming the growth of vehicle fleet is easy, but that in itself is not the issue. Countries with greater density of both vehicles and people have achieved much lower road crash rates than Sri Lanka.

The challenge is managing numbers through right policies, preventive measures and enlightened self-interest. Indiscriminate bombs are no longer going off on our streets, but we have yet to make them safer.

See also:

17 March 2013: When Worlds Collide #58: Making Our Roads Safer – Every Life Counts!

Incidence of road injuries in Sri Lanka (uses mid-2000s data)

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Air Pollution, Communicating Development, Disaster, Education, Environmental management, Poverty, Public health, Public perceptions, Public policy, Road Safety, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Transport, Urban issues and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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