I was whizzing back to my Colombo apartment in a tuk-tuk one evening recently when I happened to look out at the side of the street and see, hovering a foot above the pavement, the outlines of several small children.
“Eek!” I exclaimed. “Sri Lankan ghost children!” (My excitability may have been due to the fact that I’d just been in a local hostelry partaking of a couple of bottles of Sri Lanka’s finest beverage, Lion Lager.)
When I traversed the same street the following day, I discovered that the spooky levitating children were still there, but they weren’t actually ghosts. In reality, they were the foot soldiers of a new traffic safety campaign: life-sized photographic silhouettes, fixed on poles and facing the oncoming traffic, each bearing a sign with a safety slogan written in English or Sinhala. These slogans ranged from general ones like “Please drive safely” to more specific ones like “Please don’t drive while you’re on the phone” and “Please don’t drink and drive”; and some sounded personal, like “Daddy, please think of me before you drive so fast” and “Aunties and uncles, please follow the traffic signs.”
(Incidentally, in the local variety of English, calling someone an ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re their niece or nephew. According to my Dictionary of Sri Lankan English by Michael Meyler, ‘auntie’ can be “a term of respect / affection used by a child to a woman or by a young woman to an older woman, even if they are not related.” The equivalent, with boys and younger and older men, applies to ‘uncle’.)
I’ve written humorously about these spooky traffic-safety kids, but there’s no denying that they’re being used to combat a serious social issue. Sri Lankan roads are not particularly safe. A World Health Organisation report in 2015, using data from 2013, put the annual traffic-accident death-toll in Sri Lanka per 100,000 people at 17.4 (compared with 16.6 for India and 2.9 for the UK). In 2015 it was calculated that one Sri Lankan was dying in a traffic accident every three-and-a-half hours; while the total number of traffic fatalities in 2016 came to 3,117. Among the reasons given for the carnage are the usual suspects: lack of adequate driver-training, immaturity, speeding, alcohol and tiredness. (As someone who’s had some scary late-night taxi rides with drivers who’ve looked worryingly sleepy, I can testify to that last one being a problem.)
Among the other figures for 2016, there were 10,754 recorded accidents involving motorcycles, which doesn’t surprise me – motorbikes are ubiquitous here, but drivers of larger vehicles rarely seem to give them much consideration. It also doesn’t surprise me that 2016 saw 7,061 accidents with tuk-tuks, given the devil-may-care, at times verging on Evel Knievel-esque, driving style favoured by many three-wheeler drivers.
I have to say, though, that for me the biggest villains on Sri Lanka’s streets and roads are the bus drivers, who often behave like they’re at the wheel of an armoured battle-truck in some Mad-Max-style post-apocalypse dystopia. They seem to believe they have god-like status when they overtake – anything coming in the opposite direction had better get the hell out of the way. (And when you’re confronted with a 15-ton bus hurtling towards you, you do.)
A few months back, I was having a beer one night in a pub in Jaffna when I got into a conversation with a bloke who was busy quaffing a bottle of arrack. He spent a long time lamenting about the dangerous driving taking place on the nation’s roads and the number of road accidents resulting from it. And he had no doubt about what the root of the problem was: “Many young guys drinking alcohol. Then getting into their cars.” Finally, he finished his bottle of arrack, paid the bill and lifted from behind the table something I hadn’t noticed before – a motorcycle helmet. With that, he slouched off into the night.
Spooky traffic-safety kids, you have your work cut out.