A correct call | Daily News


A correct call

The proposal on banning those under 35 years from driving three wheelers for hire was always a controversial one, with multiple implications and angles. It would have applied only to new applications, and not to existing operators. There are nearly 1.2 million three wheelers in circulation around the country, at least one million of which accept passengers on hire. The rest are used as company and private vehicles that do not accept fare-paying passengers.

Proponents of the ban were of the view that easy access to three wheelers (it is still the cheapest vehicle, barring motorcycles) has veered the youth away from other possible vocations and even higher educational opportunities. Three wheelers are used mostly as a “last-mile” transport option (say, from the bus station to one’s home). If a three wheeler is parked near such a “high-traffic” place, the driver can easily earn more than Rs.2,000 per day from the up and down runs. Rainy days usually bring an additional windfall.

There were other concerns too. With cash in hand by 2-3 p.m. the drivers, mostly youth, tend to get addicted to other vices such as drugs and alcohol. In the exhilaration of youth, road rules seem like a distraction. Three wheelers, especially those driven by youth, are notorious for breaking all road rules and especially for making abrupt U-turns while in traffic. In fact, three wheelers and maniacally driven private buses are responsible for the majority of road accidents. After 35, most people have a better outlook on life and tend to literally take things slowly. There is some reluctance to take risks as one gets older.

In the opposing camp were those who maintained that barring youth from the three wheeler business would be a violation of their rights, apart from the fact that it would cut off a considerable number of youth from a self-employment or revenue generation avenue. Once a youth begins to operate a three-wheeler his income levels go up and the society also gets a new transport option. In some remote villages, a three wheeler could literally be a matter of life and death – patients are often transported by three wheeler to the nearest hospital, which could be 15-20 Km away. Besides, on-hire three wheelers often double up as a family vehicle for the owner and/or the driver, lessening their dependence on erratic public transport.

Considering all these aspects, the Cabinet has revoked the Gazette Notification barring those below 35 years from obtaining three-wheeler driving licenses. The Transport and Civil Aviation Ministry had earlier issued the gazette which permitted only those above 35 years of age to apply for the driving licence for three-wheelers. The Cabinet of Ministers has now insisted there should be no bar on any age group from 18 onwards to operate three wheelers.

But this still calls for addressing the concerns expressed by both camps. Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, a strong opponent of the age bar, has said that a special agency would be established to regulate the three wheeler service by providing proper training and guidance to those involved in the industry. This is a very timely proposal. Half the accidents involving three wheelers can be reduced if they are driven properly, respecting road rules. The Government has already made taxi meters compulsory and it should also be made compulsory to display an information sheet on the operator that includes name, age, address, ID number, police division and normal operational area (ex: Colombo Fort).

The Government must intervene pro-actively in this regard. One recent example is the training given to three wheeler operators in tourist hotspots under the “Tuk Tuk” initiative. The three wheelers are clearly labeled, which means that tourists can hop into them without any trepidation. This scheme should be extended islandwide. Likewise, the entry of both local and foreign ride hailing companies to the three wheeler arena bodes well for the industry (and other road users) as these companies provide additional training and also scrutinize potential drivers before recruitment. The police must conduct regular on-the-spot checks to nab errant three wheeler drivers, including those who operate without a driving licence and insurance. The Government must also create other income avenues for the youth, which can make three wheelers a less attractive proposition. For a start, construction and farming should be made more attractive to youth.

But at the end of the day, we do need a viable alternative to the three wheeler, which is a fundamentally unsafe vehicle. There is a need for a proper taxi service that uses vehicles with four wheels and four doors. Many experts have called for a gradual phasing out of three wheelers at least in the Western Province by 2030-2035, given that they do not sync with the concept of a highly developed megapolis. Besides, the advent of driverless vehicles in a couple of decades will render taxi drivers useless, with unmanned autonomous cars at our beck and call any time of the day. We must plan for the future now without necessarily making this a political issue.

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