Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Driving in Sri Lanka

For years my Dad has said "If you can drive in Sri Lanka you can drive anywhere".

I cannot begin to accurately describe Sri Lankan driving to someone who has not witnessed it first hand. Roads do exist but they are vague and poorly defined. Rules also exist and they can be even more vague and even less defined. Some of my observations are:

  • It is the sole responsibility of the other driver to inform you when it is safe or unsafe to overtake. This may be done by indicating, using hazard warning lights or, to tell someone it is safe to overtake, a clever and subtle cupping type movement of the hand whilst whiggling the fingers and casually dangling the arm out of the window. Road users who are experienced in driving in other countries will not even notice this hand motion as it is imperceptible to the untrained eye.

  • Use your horn! Like one of Newton's laws Sri Lankan vehicles always continue in their existing path until they meet with some resistance. Here in the UK we continually have to look out for things (cars, pedestrians, large buildings etc) and then use a combination of steering, braking and accelerating to avoid them. In SL you "horn" pedestrians, animals and other road users to warn of your approach. They then casually skip out of your way and all are happy. In the UK a horn is only considered as appropriately used when it is sounded to warn of an impending nuclear attack or something of similar proportions. Occasionally it can be used to try to get the attention of someone you know, but this is usually met with looks of anger and hatred from all others in the vicinity. Any use for lesser reasons is frowned upon and usually met with shouting or road rage or both.

  • Traffic lights are widely used in Sri Lanka. However, they can be ignored if you are in a hurry or drunk, both of which are encouraged.

  • Tuk tuks are a great mode of transport. No rules at all apply to their drivers.

  • Buses - See tuk tuks for rules

  • Zebra crossings. In the UK, if you even think about crossing the road at one of these black and white things, cars will stop to let you go. If any part of your body is on a zebra crossing you have the right of way. Cars slow down to avoid running people over and pedestrians usually feel that a zebra crossing is a safe place to try to cross a road. In Sri Lanka zebra crossings are places of danger. They are also usually yellow and the only stopping done near a Sri Lankan crossing is by pedestrians who are dodging traffic.

Night driving probably could warrant a whole blog entry but I shall only say that night driving in Sri Lanka is fun and challenging for Westerners. And fucking dangerous. It is like doing an extreme sport on your way home from work every evening, only cheaper and a bit more dangerous. Western drivers, who are used to the general principle of all road users having lights at night, can be lulled into a false sense of security by expecting vehicles in Sri Lanka to adopt the same attitude.

Road accidents happen everywhere but my theory is that the proportional number of serious road accidents in Sri Lanka is less than in the Western world. I think this is because the roads in Sri Lanka are not designed to be able to carry vehicles at the same speeds as in many other places. This is probably proven by the time it takes to travel relatively short distances in Sri Lanka compared to elsewhere in the world.

We are lucky in the UK in that we have good roads on which we can often travel at high speeds if we desire. The onset of speed cameras has put an end to that for many people in many locations, but we can still put our foot down if we really want to. One of the consequences of driving at higher speeds is that, when we have accidents, they tend to cause much more damage in every possible way.

I don't know if it is still the case but I remember a few years ago that there was only one person in Sri Lanka who owned a Ferrari. I think it was Aravinda de Silva. It always seemed a tragic waste of a supercar to me. As much use as a one legged man at an arse kicking party.

I am not sure if I agree with my Dad that "If you can drive in Sri Lanka you can drive anywhere" but it certainly takes some getting used to!

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