The decision taken by Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to place a cap on the age for Driving School instructors, at 60, is a welcome move. So is the decision that henceforth only those driving instructors approved by the Department of Motor Traffic would be allowed to train learners. The Minister, speaking to Driving School owners, the other day, also observed that it would be ideal if politicians too retire at the age of 60. If that be the case, none of those now in the saddle of power, or those aspiring to come to power, would have to bow out. Why, even the Minister, himself, who once entertained Prime Ministerial ambitions would have to call it quits.
Addressing the annual conference of Driving School owners, at the BMICH, the Minister said it would be compulsory for all driving school instructors, to henceforth, possess a license issued by the Department of Motor Traffic. This was after it was found that many driving instructors did not possess a license to train learners and also that those who had undergone training at the hands of these unlicensed instructors were found to have been involved in serious road accidents due to their lack of knowledge of road rules and signals. Today, with the heavy volume of vehicles entering the country, and the increase in the mobility of people, driving schools carry on a thriving business. What is more, with the mushrooming of these driving schools, almost at every street corner, there is fierce competition for custom. In the process, standards have been thrown overboard, with profit, the driving force of these driving schools. In addition, the competence certificates issued by these driving schools to obtain driving licenses are suspect and of a dubious nature. Hence, as per the new directive, an instructor who has the endorsement of the Department of Motor Traffic will be a safe bet and as a result hopefully the rate of road accidents could be cut down and valuable lives saved.
The Minister should also devise a method to ensure that those behind the wheel are fit for the task. Today, most accidents occur due the drivers not being medically fit or having reached an age where their reflexes are found wanting. A majority of the vehicles involved in accidents are the long haul ones, travelling from interior of the country to the city, most often the night and the tendency for the driver to fall asleep during the trip has led to a number of major accidents, with these heavy vehicles sometimes plunging down ravines or onto houses. Hence it would be advisable to lay down a maximum age limit where a driver could sit behind a wheel.
True, most drivers work well into their old age to support their families and sometimes are the sole breadwinners of their families. Hence imposing such restrictions could create other problems and could also draw protests. However the larger picture should be gone into, taking into consideration the mounting incidences of road accidents, that, more often than not, snuff off lives and render families orphan. Of course, driving under the influence of liquor is a matter outside the Minister's scope and is dealt by the law enforcement. But the Minister has the power to rein in the private buses who have today become a law unto themselves. The President of the Private Bus owners’ Association Gemunu Wijeratne is on record stating that there is a large proportion of private bus drivers who are drug addicts and obviously are stoned while at the wheel. The Minister should try to ascertain who these addicts are and withdraw their licenses. If the Minister is driven by the responsibility of saving lives by ensuring that only those who are competent by official endorsement can be driving instructors, by the same token, he would be saving a lot of lives by ensuring only those who are truly fit , in every sense, are allowed behind the wheel in the private buses.
The Minister should not be intimidated by the strong arm tactics of the private bus mafia. He should also comedown hard on overcrowding and rude behaviour of private bus crew towards passengers. Some time ago, a hotline was given to the public travelling in private buses to report speeding and uncouth conduct by the bus crew. We are not aware if this scheme is still in operation. He should also take steps to improve facilities at stopover spots by private buses, for the convenience of the passengers. Presently, there are complaints that the eateries that cater to the exhausted passengers are squalid and food served unhygenic. Even the toilet facilities are much to be desired. He should also take steps to renovate main bus stations, some of which are crumbling from neglect.
The Minister, known for his no-nonsense stance, recently won the praise of the travelling public for resisting the disproportionate fare hike demanded by the private bus operators and hopefully he will not be a victim in the contemplated Cabinet reshuffle that is being bandied about these days.