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When Grim Reaper rides shotgun

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Monday 22nd May, 2023

There has been a public outcry in this country, recently, over some extremely tragic deaths, the latest being that of a Sri Lankan woman in Singapore. Those incidents must be probed thoroughly and justice served expeditiously, but, curiously, there is no such public reaction to the daily loss of about seven lives in road accidents. In 2022, about 2,371 fatal road mishaps happened in Sri Lanka, snuffing out as many as 2,485 lives, according to the police. The general consensus is that the majority of these killer accidents are preventable, but nothing much has been done, all these years, to make roads safe.

It was reported yesterday that the police had, over the weekend, arrested several private bus drivers for driving under the influence of narcotics. Such action will go a long way towards ensuring road safety, for drug addiction among drivers is one of the main causes of road accidents.

It was announced some months ago that a roadside drug testing scheme would be launched, but we still see only half-hearted attempts on the part of the authorities concerned to tackle drug driving. The police are doing commendably well where random checks to nab drunk drivers are concerned, and the lack of equipment to conduct roadside drug testing may be the main reason why the problem of drug driving cannot be dealt with effectively.

Experts inform us that drugs and alcohol impair drivers’ cognitive functions, motor skills, reaction time and overall judgment, and it is not surprising that so many lives are lost in road mishaps, day in, day out. Sri Lankans are notorious for living dangerously even when they are sober. This fact is borne out by their reckless driving/riding and jaywalking; drugs and alcohol have made the roads even more dangerous. Private bus drivers and truckers are the worst culprits; they drive like bats out of hell and have become a law unto themselves. It is these asphalt cowboys, as it were, who determine the pace of vehicular traffic to all intents and purposes.

In 2021, the media quoted State Minister of Transport Dilum Amunugama as having said that about 80 percent of private bus drivers in Colombo and its suburbs were addicted to narcotics. Police Spokesman SSP Nihal Thalduwa has told the media that the highest number of road accidents are usually reported from the Western Province.

President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association (LPBOA) Gemunu Wijeratne has gone on record as saying that the majority of private bus workers are addicted to drugs. He has sought to attribute their drug addiction to occupational stress caused by long hours of work, traffic congestion, lack of parking facilities, etc. Stress may be one of the drivers of drug addiction among private bus workers, as he claims, but the fact remains that nothing can be cited in extenuation of drug driving, which endangers the lives of all road users alike.

LPBOA chief Wijeratne has welcomed the random drug testing and recent arrests, but said, in the same breath, that he wishes the police had the same high-octane performance in dealing with the progeny of wealthy, powerful individuals as well. Those who visit nightclubs, hotels, etc., and burn rubber in full view of the police must also be tested for drugs, he has said. One cannot but agree with him on this score. Private bus drivers must not be made to feel that they are being discriminated against. Roadside drug testing must be carried out on all drivers including rave party attendees. There are complaints from the residents of some parts of the Colombo city and its suburbs that drag races disturb the peace of night. It behoves the police to swoop on the culprits and have them tested for drugs and alcohol besides prosecuting them for illegal racing.

The police deserve encouragement and assistance to carry out random drug tests, which are long overdue. They should be provided with necessary resources such as equipment, training, etc., to rid the country’s roads of reckless drug addicts and dipsomaniacs behind the wheel and ensure the safety of all members of the public.

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