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Sunday, 9 October 2011

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Government Gazette

Buckle up, please

The seat belt law is finally being implemented in earnest, although it was in place for some time. Many motorists voluntarily buckled up, but there were many who did not. Now they too will have to fall in line.

We are around two decades late when it comes to the seat belt law implementation, but the authorities must be commended for taking a firm stand this time. We have had a strict helmet law for around two decades, which has helped immensely to reduce the death rate on our roads.

Putting the helmet on has become second nature to riders, not necessarily out of the fear of law, but because they know helmets can and do save lives. In the same way, there is no doubt that seat belts will help save lives on our congested and sometimes deadly roads.

At first, the law will apply only to cars and dual purpose vehicles with English number plates, which were issued from 2000. However, seat belts have been around for much longer - since the early 1970s, though not all cars had them.

The authorities should suggest to motorists that they should wear seat belts if their cars are equipped with belts, regardless of the age of the car. They may not be penalised for not wearing the belt, but it should be a voluntary process that may save lives in the long run. In the case of older cars that are not equipped with belts, it may be possible to retro-fit them too.

We see no reason why the seat belt law cannot be applied at least to trucks and prime movers having English number plates. Trucks are involved in a large number of accidents on our roads - the accident in Wariyapola on Wednesday that killed six people is just one example.

Contrary to the popular opinion that truck drivers are 'safe' because they sit so high, they can easily be killed in a frontal collision with an equally big vehicle - another truck or a bus. Seat belts will help reduce such fatalities. Bus drivers' seats should also be equipped with seat belts, if they are not so equipped already, though even bus passengers are required to wear the seat belt in certain countries.

Some motorists believe that the airbags will protect them in an accident even if they do not wear the belt. But in most cars, the two systems work in tandem and the airbag may not deploy if the belt has not been worn. This is why it is called a "Supplemental" Restraint System - they jointly work to save the driver and passenger(s). Thus it is important to wear the belt, even if your car is equipped with airbags, ABS, Brake Assist and other safety measures.

There are also many instances when only the driver wears the belt, while the front passenger does not. This is not a good habit. If someone gets into the front passenger's sent but does not buckle up, just ask them to do so.

There are many other issues that the authorities should look into. Most Sri Lankans prefer to keep their young children, even infants, in the front seat. Some of them even keep toddlers in the driving seat while the father or the mother drives the car.

These are horrendous, dangerous practices. Children should be in the rear seat(s) at all time, preferably buckled up or in the case of infants and toddlers, in a separate child seat. This is strictly observed in many other countries and it is time we followed suit.

Talking of rear seat belts, the seat belt law must be extended to the rear seat passengers in due course. In a serious accident, especially a collision from the rear end, rear seat passengers face a great danger. I have seen only a very few people using rear seat belts in this country, but it is a common practice elsewhere.

The authorities should some more time for the motoring public to get used to front seat belts and once it becomes a natural habit, the law should be extended to those in the rear.

Most motorists have given up using hand held mobile devices while driving, but there are some who persist. More awareness should be created on this issue. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a simple message on a billboard that said it all: "Kill the Call, not Yourself". Yes, that is the message that should reach those who still use the phone while driving. A hands-free set does not cost the earth, but a hand-held phone can cost you your life.

Eating at the wheel is another somewhat dangerous practice. Some countries do have a ban on eating at the wheel because this too can distract the driver, even for a second. It is better to eat or refresh oneself after stopping the car for a while, rather than do it while the car is on the move.

In fact, if you feel tired and sleepy, it is better not to drive at all until fully fit.

Today's cars are equipped with many advanced safety features, from the humble seat belt to expensive radar-based collision avoidance and night vision systems. Moreover, voice navigation systems can guide you to your destinations with a minimum of hassle. All these serve a function and are really useful in today's harsh driving environments. It is reassuring to have a host of passive and active safety systems at your disposal, should the unthinkable happen. They just might save your life and those of your loved ones.

But until vehicles can drive themselves (believe me, they are coming), the human element will remain the most crucial component of motoring. In short, someone still has to drive the car.

This is why we need disciplined, courteous, law-abiding drivers who give prime consideration to safety, theirs' and others'. The safety systems incorporated in vehicles can only do so much, if human error creeps in.

It is thus vital to have a good knowledge of all safety systems and apparatus in your vehicle and make maximum use of those to ensure a safer journey. But no technological marvel can beat sound judgement, quick reflexes and road discipline.

 

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