Solve this problem soon! | Sunday Observer

Solve this problem soon!

“For want of a nail… a kingdom was lost” goes that old European adage (Shakespeare uses it in ‘Richard III’). Last Thursday and Friday, national productivity lapsed severely, even if it did not come to a grinding halt, entirely due to a dispute over motor traffic fines. People were unable to do many things, including their main livelihood, due to the lack of the principal means of transport as a result of the private bus operators’ work stoppage in protest against the sudden, steep hike in traffic offence fines.

Public bus services, whether state or private-run, has been the principal means of public transport for Sri Lankans almost since automotive road transport began in this country a century ago.

Thus, when the private bus operators halt their services, much public life also halts. While the SLCTB is no longer big enough to meet public demand on its own, Sri Lanka Railways only serves limited stretches of the country’s main travel routes. Many people had to stay away from work or, arrive very late and wanted to leave early due to the lack of transport. So did students. Many other domestic and private matters were also put on hold due to the bus strike.

All of this due to the 2017 Budget’s requirement to steeply raise police fines for motor traffic rule violations. Some of these traffic violations will be punished by fines up to Rs. 25,000! Even those who do not drive or use their own motor vehicles will blanch at this huge hike as compared with the current set of fines that number in the hundreds or a few thousand rupees per offence.

A general principle of justice is that the punishment must be proportionate to the offence. If a motorist attempts to overtake another on the wrong side and, kills someone in the process, then that offending motorist will suffer not just a traffic fine but, far more severe punishment in the form of jail for either serious criminal negligence or manslaughter.

The punishment for simply overtaking on the left of another vehicle is imposed, solely, to deter wrong road behaviour. This is to avoid all negative repercussions ranging from a disruption of smooth traffic flow, to hitting another vehicle, to hitting other road travellers or pedestrians, to crashing into roadside installations.

It is the first ‘repercussion’ on the list above that is the most common, if not inevitable, repercussion of such wrong driving behaviour. And, in addition to disrupting traffic flow, such wrong behaviour will add to the stress of other motorists. Worse, such constant slowing down and gear-changes add to fuel usage which, in turn, adds to the national fuel import bill.

All other traffic fines are similarly intended. The punishment for the lack of a driving licence is to avoid the risk of bad driving due to ignorance of driving technique and traffic law. The lack of valid motor insurance is also punishable to ensure that the vehicle conforms to insurance requirements.

Thus, it is not ‘just’ for the justice system to impose punishments for road driving offences which are more severe than for other violations of law that are relatively bigger crimes.

Leaving aside judicial proportionality, an added immediate dimension is the inability of many, if not most, motorists to pay up such very high fines. While a fine of Rs. 700 or even Rs. 2,000 may be manageable to a trishaw or bus driver, it still eats in to his/her daily income, which, for almost all this type of motorist, is a crucial, daily, challenge in livelihood. Raise these fines to several thousands and even tens of thousands, and one can see why it is the private bus and trishaw taxi driver who complaining loudest and protesting most militantly.

Far more importantly, there must be a serious acknowledgment that there are other factors that contribute greatly to motorist offences. Firstly, roads remain too narrow or poorly planned to cope with the current traffic load. Worse, successive governments – including this one – have allowed lavish imports of vehicles despite the basic lack of road space. On our ridiculously packed roadways, is it surprising that motorists constantly bend rules not just to have their own way but also to circumvent other, even more selfish, motorists?

Another factor that promotes driver misbehaviour is the lack of detailed regulation of the bus service system itself. The urban bus operators are not firmly bound by rigorous service rules such as that which prevents one bus from overtaking another on the same route except at specific points – standards typical of developed urban bus services, which ours is supposed to emulate. Hence, the maniacal road races between private bus operators whose daily income depends on their passenger volumes.

Yet another factor is the poor supervision of the issue of driving licences and, the concomitant poor standards of motorist competence due to poor training and corrupt practices in licence tests.

To its credit, the Government has been sensitive to the cry of the private bus operators and, the President, as well as relevant ministers, has engaged with this issue.

Thanks to the President’s offer to discuss matters, the bus strike is suspended. Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has quickly agreed to make concessions on a range of ancillary matters that will, once implemented, ease the fine burden somewhat.

It is also up to our national-debt-burdened Minister of Finance, Ravi Karunanayake, to achieve a finer balance between that criminally enormous (‘criminal’ because it was wilfully imposed by the previous regime) burden and the ability of the people to bear the weight of repayment. With international financial institutions breathing down his neck, our Finance Minister can be forgiven for attempting desperate measures. Minister Karunanayake has to soften the blow of the debt burden at least on more vulnerable sections such as the average motorist. 

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