Most Sri Lankan drivers are conscious of the dangers and hassles of careless driving and generally endeavour to be law-abiding, especially considering the now greatly increased traffic density and police proactivity. There is great incentive for them to try to drive in such a way as to obviate costly encounters with lawless road users or the guardians of the law. Consequently, the offences they are likely commit would be mostly of a technical nature, viz. ones that are easy to detect but rarely cause serious problems (like driving a short distance over a white line or exceeding the speed limit marginally). Unfortunately, the orderly movement of responsible drivers is adversely affected by our poor road conditions as well as the recklessness and socially-irresponsible attitude of a significant proportion of the younger persons who drive three-wheelers or buses, or ride motor-cycles. Their youthful levels of testosterone induce them to display compulsive competitiveness, aggression and risk-taking with little regard for most road rules. It is the behaviour of these younger persons – and not the minor transgressions of the much larger number of older drivers – which is the dominant ingredient that leads to the high frequency of road accidents that prevails presently.
At a recent news conference, a Minister supported the imposition of heavy fines on careless drivers by arguing that even heftier fines than those now proposed are levied in, for example, Singapore and Australia. A little reflection will reveal that this is not by any means a fair comparison. What he failed to say was that roads in those countries are designed, constructed and maintained properly, well-signposted, well-lit and also equipped with traffic lights that function at all times. These lights are not turned off by policemen wearing uniforms noted for their poor visibility (especially at night) and giving hand signals that are not always clear. The differences mentioned here, especially the poor road infrastructure, have a considerable bearing on the propensity for accidents to occur. Therefore, penalties that may be acceptable elsewhere should not be blindly applied here. Another important factor that should not be ignored is to relate the scales of fines to the per capita income applicable to Sri Lanka.
A substantial fine may be justified for an offence that has nothing to do with what happens on the roads. Failure to secure third-party insurance, an emission certificate or the road license are offences which can be dealt with by the imposition of an appropriate fine. Once these requirements are satisfied and the fines paid, the offender will not have to suffer any further punishments in respect of these failings until the following year, and even then only if he repeats these offences. To be punished indiscriminately for minor infractions should not be the norm.
The offence of exceeding the speed limit by, say, 5-10km/h on some deserted road (where lots of traffic policemen love to lie in ambush) cannot be equated to the crime of a bus or truck driver who insists on regardlessly weaving right and left whilst overtaking vehicles either within city limits or on winding, narrow roads. There is often no way to check the speed of vehicles in such restricted conditions. On the other hand, on several occasions the reporters from at least one local TV station (while going on some unrelated assignment) have taken the opportunity to record digitally examples of extremely dangerous driving and shown them in their news bulletins. Here, the offending driver may not have been exceeding the speed limit nor overtaking vehicles on the left side but driving like a maniac nevertheless, considering the congested road conditions. Therefore, instead of doing the easy things like punishing drivers for technical offences, greater ingenuity and effort should be exercised by the police to emulate the aforesaid TV reporters to track and record the more egregious instances of driving that are seen every day everywhere because dangerous driving contributes to far more accidents than technical infractions that are easy to spot.
Considering that breaking road rules constitutes anti-social conduct, it would not be unreasonable to assume that persons who do so would very likely be habitual offenders and would think nothing of bribing traffic policemen in order to avoid being fined heavily or having to hire a lawyer and go through the inconvenience, mental stress and much greater expense of appearing in the traffic courts. An offender with limited scruples would gladly pay a bribe of, say, 20-30% of the stipulated fine to help obviate the vexatious waste of time involved in surrendering his driving license and recovering it later from the relevant police station. There is some reason to think that bribe-givers and bribe-takers have a natural tendency to recognise each other for what they are and, hence, it would not be too difficult an exercise for both parties to silence their own consciences. Offenders would pay up; the policemen involved would pocket the hush-money and refrain from taking any further action. These transactions are, of course, settled quickly and discreetly.
The heavier the stipulated fine, the greater the takings of the police team involved. The improper earnings collected by a small team of traffic policemen would amount to a very attractive supplementary income. An astute commentator has expressed the view that, because the legitimate remuneration of policemen alone cannot be increased without encountering resistance from other state employees, the government has probably devised this convenient way of improving the lot of the former!
Needless to say, police teams would not be free to release every offender by accepting bribes because they would have to penalise a sufficient number of road users to satisfy their superiors that the law is being fully put into effect. By letting the experienced traffic offender cum bribe-giver escape, traffic police will find themselves obliged to apprehend a larger number of minor transgressors from among generally law-abiding groups of drivers and charge them for less serious violations.
A suggestion that we should like to make is for the police to secure a relatively small number of unmarked cars and vans, fitted with disguised digital cameras and recorders. These vehicles should move around and follow the many offenders who are bound to overtake them recklessly. As in advanced countries, digital recordings made on such occasions should be made legally admissible as irrefutable proof of the manner in which the vehicles being monitored were being driven. The owners/drivers of the said vehicles should be obliged to furnish all relevant details of the person at the wheel of the hazardously-driven vehicle and arrange to submit all documents called for – driving license, vehicle registration sheet, emission test certificate, road license, insurance certificate etc at the nearest Grade 1 police station and have the details entered into a central data bank. The penalty imposed on the owner and/or the driver should be made sharper with each infringement.
In short, it would be better to treat generally well-behaved drivers leniently without subjecting them to vicious fines but to get much tougher with those identified by CCTV tracking as Highway Code violators because the majority of serious accidents are caused by the latter.
Finally, we need to ask the authorities whether a traffic violation by a VIP or his minions will be exempt from conforming to the Highway Code, especially with respect to “pushing” other vehicles out of the way, exceeding speed limits, or getting traffic police to override the rights of other road users, especially at road intersections.
As an unavoidable duty, we are obliged to state that it is extremely unsatisfactory in principle for a government to consider the collection of fines and penalties as a respectable or constructive source of income in balancing budgets. The correct approach in the preparation of national budgets should be to provide incentives for citizens to become more productive and simultaneously improve the efficiency and coverage of tax collection, which is absurdly low at present. When one sees how much is being invested by individuals in business ventures, buying real estate, constructing houses, owning a multiplicity of vehicles, constantly partying at 5-star hotels, spending millions on weddings (apart from dowries) etc, there is every reason to conclude that the Department of Inland Revenue (DIR) is not carrying out the its investigations with anything like the commitment required. The cooperation of the DIR must be constructively secured by the government so that tax collecting work is carried out more conscientiously so that fines imposed for road violations would not have to be relied upon to reduce budgetary shortfalls.