Drug addiction among private bus drivers, conductors: ‘Fault of the system’ | Sunday Observer

Drug addiction among private bus drivers, conductors: ‘Fault of the system’

The drug detection device requested by the traffic police
The drug detection device requested by the traffic police

For years Chairman of the Lanka Private Bus Owners Association, Gemunu Wijeartne has been attempting to gain the attention of authorities to what he considers is a burning issue leading to the collapse of the private bus industry in Sri Lanka.

Wijeratne has claimed that a majority of bus drivers and conductors belonging to the industry are addicted to drugs and are often found under its influence while transporting passengers.

“But no one has heeded my warning or taken steps to stop it,” he said.

Wijeratne said a number of causes have led to this situation.

“It is not their fault but that of the system and the background created by it,” he said. According to Wijeratne, crews are often under major stress.

“There is no designated parking like the SLTB has, the time tables are in disarray and to top it off the traffic congestion is intolerable,” he points out adding that these issues among a number of others have led to drug addiction among bus drivers and conductors.

This has lead to the collapse of the industry. “It is difficult to find crew members now as drug addiction has affected those who were working” he said. Asked if drug addiction is contributing to the rising statistics of accidents caused by public transport buses in Sri Lanka, Wijeratne said it was difficult to say.

“To this day the law enforcement crew does not even have the equipment to test motorists for drugs,” he pointed out. “So how do we or the Police even know if drug addiction has contributed to accidents?” he questioned.

A fact the Police agrees with. According to the Police, the current method to ascertain if a driver has any form of drugs in his system is a tedious process. Often policemen avoid having to deal with it.

If policemen suspect a driver is under the influence of drugs, the suspected driver will have to be taken before a Magistrate and an order obtained to do the relevant drug tests. With the order in hand, the Police will then have to take the driver to a Medical Officer for the tests to be conducted.

Action against the driver can only be taken once the tests prove he had an illegal substance in his system.

“The process is tedious and therefore drug tests on drivers are a rarity in Sri Lanka,” a traffic policeman explained. According to him, policemen are reluctant to initiate the process in case their suspicion of a driver who had taken drugs could be incorrect. “We might notice that something is not right with the driver but other than this process, we have no other way to check,” he said.

In fact, due to these issues, for years, the Police has continuously tried to obtain drug detection equipment for its Traffic Division which will allow it to carry out roadside tests.

But its requests have only fallen on deaf ears. In one of its most recent attempts in 2017, the Division had presented its requests to the government when a program to modernise the Police Force was announced.

In its request, the Police noted that despite reports of motorists using drugs prior to getting behind the wheel, it has no equipment or method to test suspected drivers and arrest them under section 151 (1) of the Motor Traffic Act.

“This has become a major obstacle for us” the Police noted adding that as a number of drugs such as cannabis and heroin are found within the country which necessitates such equipment for accident prevention. At the time under the modernisation program, the Police had hoped to obtain 100 such devices that could detect nine types of drugs. While the program was later cancelled by the government without explanation, the Traffic Division today continues to function without the necessary equipment.

However, making a note of the issue last month Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, Arjuna Ranatunga said action will be taken against errant drivers nevertheless.

“Any driver found guilty of driving under the influence of narcotics, through medical tests, will have their driving license cancelled” he was quoted as saying.

The Minister has promised that all drivers and conductors in public transportation will be subjected to medical tests before the end of this year.

“There are media reports that some private bus crews were operating their buses while under the influence of drugs such as ‘ice’.

This is a dangerous situation and we should take immediate action to prevent it,” he said. “Narcotics impair drivers’ driving ability, substantially increasing the likelihood of an accident” he added.

In a bid to resolve the issue Ranatunge said steps have been taken to establish a flying Squad and it would be deployed round the clock to check private bus crews for use of drugs while on duty.

The Minister also said a Split specimen test will be conducted to detect if the operating crews have consumed drugs.

But according to Gemunu Wijeratne, many assurances by consecutive governments over the years have been merely empty promises.

“They have continuously failed to resolve issues surrounding the industry which has now eventually led to its continuous collapse” he noted refusing to believe that any positive change will be forthcoming.