By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, November 16: A World Bank study on road accidents across a range of countries says that a 50% reduction in fatality in road accidents leads to a 7 to 22% increase in GDP over a period of 24 years.
It says that human capital accounts for around two-thirds of a country’s total wealth, far more than natural capital and produced capital. This shows the importance of preserving human lives by preventing road accidents, especially fatal accidents.
The finding that crash fatalities and injuries have macroeconomic ripple effects gains plausibility from the fact that they predominantly affect young people, who constitute the “working-age group” in the population, the bank points out.
The World Bank report entitled: “Delivering Road Safety in Sri Lanka underscores the fact that the disproportionate impact of road crash mortality and morbidity on the economically productive segment of the population depresses GDP growth rates.
Referring specifically to Sri Lanka, the study says that: “Investment in effective road crash fatality and injury prevention will contribute to the accumulation of human capital in Sri Lanka, which in turn, will contribute to sustainable and inclusive economic growth and overall country wealth.” Pointing out that Sri Lanka has made progress on reducing poverty and boosting prosperity over the past decade, it warns that these gains will be undermined by high fatality and injury rates on its roads.
“The estimated annual road crash deaths per capita in Sri Lanka are twice the average rate in high-income countries, and five times that of the best performing countries in the world,” the report points out.
Available Lankan data indicate an average of 38,000 crashes annually which result in around 3,000 fatalities and 8,000 serious injuries. Sri Lanka has the “worst road fatality rate” among its immediate neighbours in the South Asian region. The reported fatality rate (17.4) is “the worst in South Asia.”
According to the World Health Organization, in 2016, out of the 3,000 road fatalities, pedestrians made up almost a third, and two and three-wheeler occupants more than half. Data from the National Council for Road Safety (NCRS) indicate that most of the crashes occur during the festive months of April and December.
70% of road crashes involve low-income commuters and motorists. Motorcycle-pedestrian crashes are high, accounting for about 40% of pedestrian fatalities. And anecdotal evidence points to speeding, drunk driving, fatigue, burst tyre and animal intrusion as major causes. 10% of the fatalities were at railway level crossings.
Fatigue and daytime sleepiness affect almost 9% and 15% of commercial drivers respectively. Fatigue also encourages drivers to use unlawful psychedelic substances. There is also an increasing incidence of drug usage by bus and taxi drivers. But this goes undetected due to the lack of equipment to test for the presence of drugs and the lack of regulations to check drug abuse.
Road behaviour, especially outside Colombo (by all road users, but mostly private bus drivers and three-wheelers), is largely indisciplined. Speeding on inter-city roads is a problem. The root of the problem lies in the contracting structure in the public bus/taxi industry, which is a completely unregulated industry with no discipline because of the demanding work schedules and 24×7 operation, the World Bank points out.
Growth in Vehicle Numbers
The World Bank Group (WBG), which studies road safety investment in South Asia, says that the road accidents situation is exacerbated by the rapid growth in vehicle ownership and the diversity of motorized and non-motorized traffic of varying sizes and speeds. Given the rapid growth in vehicle ownership (67% between 2011 and 2018), the trend in terms of fatalities could be expected to “inexorably continue” unless scaled-up and well-targeted actions are taken to reverse it, the WBG warns.
An increased number of vehicles, poor maintenance of the road network, improper expansion of roads, less scrutiny while issuing driver’s licenses, ineffectiveness of the authorities in penalizing road traffic offenses, and inefficiency of the public transport system are some of the factors behind the increased incidence of road traffic injuries and higher fatalities in Sri Lanka.
Speed management is a fundamental need. Speed is a crucial contributor to all road deaths and injuries. Speed limits, if complied with by road users, can significantly reduce crash fatality and injury losses. The WBG says that robust vehicle and driver licensing systems will need to be established and accessible by law enforcement agencies and regulatory authorities. Road safety is not just about building good roads and efficient traffic control. It must also take into account “all road users and roadside communities and places, especially of those users that are most vulnerable and the least protected in their road environments.”
A human-centered, rather than purely a vehicle-centred focus is required, with a rebalancing of “right-of-place” and “right-of-way” concerns, it says.
The WBG says that agencies responsible for road safety in Sri Lanka are inadequately resourced to deal with escalating dangers on the country’s roads. Among these, inadequate data is a major drawback. The ramifications are wide.
“Data weaknesses undermine the capacity to develop a results-focused strategy and ensure its adequate coordination, legislative support, funding and resource allocation, promotion, monitoring and evaluation, and related research and development and knowledge transfer.”
Sri Lanka need not re-invent the wheel to set things right. The models are there in the developed world. The WBC also recommends a regional approach. It points out that there is an increasing recognition that policy initiatives at the regional level, in vehicle and infrastructure safety for instance, can complement and strengthen individual country road safety strategies.
It says: “Eight regional initiatives aligned with the five pillars of the UN Global Plan have been proposed for South Asia. For example, the proposed regional road safety observatory could assist the development of a crash data recording and management system in Sri Lanka through regional and global knowledge sharing and transfer of good practice procedures and technologies.”
Need for Empowerment
Sri Lanka’s Road Development Authority (RDA) has an informal road safety unit but it is neither equipped with the required resources nor has the technical capacity to tackle road safety issues in a systematic manner. “Consequently, there is no systematic assessment of the RDA road network (approximately 12,000 kilometres) or its highest risk sections, and little effort to incorporate better designs to reduce fatalities,” the report says.
It complains that there is a lack of standards/codes/procedures to systematically incorporate road safety into road designs. While there are minimum safety standards for road designs, these are rarely followed. Road safety audits are also not mandatory. They are only undertaken on an ad hoc basis for some new road projects. This is primarily due to a dearth of qualified staff, the report says.
Sri Lanka has one of the better health care systems in the South Asia region, with the highest health coverage index (62%) according to WHO. This record extends to post-crash care response systems as well.
“An injury surveillance system is in place; hospitals provide prompt care to the injured; there is an on-call/mobile app service to summon emergency services (1990 Suwa Seriya Ambulance Service), which is integrated with hospitals and may soon provide an estimated time of arrival on an electronic display at the hospital. The mandatory requirement that every death and serious injury be reported to the police is another positive feature,” the World Bank says.