Grappling with the speed demon

Monday, 22 April 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As vehicle accidents increase but motor vehicle registrations drop, an interesting discourse is emerging on how transport policies are structured in Sri Lanka. It was reported over the weekend that 180 fatalities were reported from a total of 168 accidents during the course of last month. Police have claimed pedestrians were the cause of many of the accidents.

Senior Police Superintendent (SSP) Chula de Silva of the City Traffic Division said yesterday pedestrians tend to ignore basic road rules and this often leads to accidents even on less busy roads in the outstations. However, it must also be acknowledged that pedestrian safety is not much focused upon by policymakers who feel that pavements and other measures can be rolled back to cut costs. Also the bulk of the funding is funnelled into highways and comparatively little is invested in improving public transport.   

Another point is that with higher taxes to shell out, most average people find it very difficult to buy a vehicle. A near 40% drop in the registration of new motor cars has been recorded during the first two months of this year when compared with the corresponding period last year. The registration of motor cars both petrol and diesel for the first two months of the current year was 2,894 while it stood at 5,336 during the first two months of 2012.

There has also been a sharp drop in the registration of motorcycles, three-wheelers and buses. Only 14,000 new three-wheelers were registered compared with 20,000 last year, while last year during the first two months 44,000 new motorcycles were registered, it stood at 26,000, a near 45% decline, this year. In the case of buses, for the first two months of last year 701 buses were registered while it was only 305 for this year.

However, in contrast, there has been an increase in the new registration of hybrid vehicles for the first two months of this year, statistics show – probably as a reaction to increasing fuel costs. Last year 546 hybrid vehicles were registered while 700 have been given fresh registration for the current year. Last year over 397,000 vehicles were registered with the single largest category being motorcycles numbering a little over 192,000. An estimated 26,000 motor vehicles are registered each month and the figures are likely to increase in some categories and drop in others.

In another interesting development, special laws have been promulgated to help owners of motorcycles with engine capacity up to as much as 1,000cc to retain their bikes for what is termed “sports purposes”. A Government Gazette under the Transport Minister’s name was rushed to print this week giving effect to this new Government policy coinciding with President Mahinda Rajapaksa announcing that new speed limits would be worked out because of the new roads that have been built across the country.

However, the new laws will prevent these motorbikes from being used on normal roads. Police Traffic Chief Amarasiri Senaratne has said the motorcycles in question would not be allowed on public roads. He has agreed that it would be difficult for Police, who own motorcycles only up to 600cc maximum engine capacity, to cope with those using more powerful bikes for criminal activity.

The DIG said the Police had only two 1,000 cc motorcycles and they were exclusively used on the Southern Expressway. One newspaper report quoted a source saying that several such high-powered motorcycles had been at out-harbour without being unloaded at the time the Gazette was hurriedly printed on 11 April. The Gazette notification states that motorcycles imported “immediately prior to the date of publication of these regulations in the Gazette” would be allowed to be brought in on the payment of a duty of Rs. 25,000.

As usual, there are wheels within wheels operating behind the scenes of policy decisions. Transport is a crucial sector for economic development, but that can only be if there are consistent and sustainable policies that take the needs of the entire population into consideration. Promoting some policy decisions for the benefit of a few while ignoring the needs and safety of the many is not constructive.