Irresponsible TV commercials and traffic offences
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from London

A TV commercial depicting a bus driver shouting at a pedestrian on the middle of a yellow zebra crossing is shown quite frequently. It started some time ago during prime time viewing when everyone was glued to their television sets to watch the International World Cup Cricket tournament. Disastrously it has come back to prime time news bulletins, which I watched twice on TV during news bulletins recently. Doesn’t this qualify for a complete ban forthwith as the message it conveys, in respect of traffic laws, is entirely wrong, illegal and capable of confusing the public mind?

The film clip begins with a man crossing the road on a yellow double line (pedestrian crossing) when a bus driver coming at speed suddenly jams the brakes and manages to stop the vehicle, with front wheels of the bus already halfway on the yellow crossing just in time to save the person on foot being hit. Then he pops his head out of his cabin and explodes: “Koheda me yanne”? (Where the hell are you going?) The pedestrian with a somewhat guilty smile and says: “Ah! mey (a name of a reputed company) ekata,” and crosses the road. Later he is shown quite happily phoning someone from the shop. Many who have seen this commercial condemn and say that the pedestrian in the TV commercial should have replied the driver with, “Kannaththata, vena kohatada, thamuse ena vidiyata?” (to the cemetery man, at the speed you are coming)!

Negative public propaganda is highly detrimental to road safety, as what we observe today is a complete disregard towards pedestrians waiting to cross the roads from designated ‘zebra’ crossings. This commercial sends the wrong signal to thousands of motorists in Sri Lanka who are flagrantly ignoring this vital traffic offence already, and confuses the ordinary pedestrian too. The danger of such irresponsible messages perhaps can help to condition the pedestrians’ mind making them believe to a certain extent that yellow crossings are motorists’ god-given domain to speed at rocket speed. It is sad and at times hilarious too, to watch people who are halfway on a crossing doing a tango in the middle of the road or take to their heels to the other side to save their dear lives!

The most logical thing would be for the pedestrian who is already half way on the crossing to be bold and command the driver to stop and reverse the question, what the bus driver was seen asking in the commercial! But then, will he be living to pose such a question is debatable from what we see and experience today on our roads.

Haven’t we got a regulatory body in this country to monitor TV commercials before they are allowed to be televised? In the interest of public safety, this type of unproductive commercials mentioned above need to be replaced with advertisements showing where the law stands and the heavy fines motorists can expect when the traffic law is broken.

International and the Sri Lankan Highway Code do strictly stipulate the yellow zebra crossing as a pedestrian’s right of way. This is the whole idea of allocating a special area with yellow colouring for people to cross the road.

In the UK, the traffic law is so strict and works in favour of the pedestrian the moment he steps on to a zebra crossing. Any motorist who flouts the law not only gets an instant fine but penalty points are added to his licence. Nine such ‘black’ points on a driver’s licence disqualify a motorist from driving for a specific period decided by a law court.

It’s true that both pedestrians and the motorists alike in Sri Lanka are totally undisciplined when it comes to road use. To a certain extent this could be attributed to the non-existence of proper pavements or sidewalks for people to tread on, so that pedestrians are seen scattered all over the public roads. But it does not make it a right for them to cross busy roads, willy nilly as and when they fancy, from anywhere for their convenience placing their own lives at risk against the fast moving traffic.

It is unfortunate to see that Sri Lankan roads have somewhat transformed into public parks at times that anyone can walk across anywhere as they please with a total disregard to their own dear lives. However, that also does not permit a motorist to accelerate his vehicle, so as to threaten the waiting pedestrian, as he approaches a crossing at speed! This is where the motor traffic law has become dysfunctional and traffic policemen standing right in front of these crossings stopping the pedestrians at times and allowing the motorists to zoom at speed a complete joke.

It should be the bounden duty of the traffic police officer who stands at a pedestrian crossing to come forward and stop the motorist who is heading towards pedestrians nervously standing to cross to the other side; equally it becomes duty bound for traffic patrols to go after errant motorists who do not obey the convention and book them with heavy fines.

Surely it is up to the area Police Superintendents (traffic) to take this issue up very seriously as we are talking about peoples’ lives. Therefore the question that remains to be answered is whether those police constables who are on duty to manage traffic at junctions, colour light controlled intersections and during peak traffic times are fully trained, briefed and sent on traffic orientation courses regularly so that they too would not become clowns in the eyes of both motorists and pedestrians.

Today the Government has introduced so many well meaning programmes such as Gama Neguma, Rata Perata etc. in an attempt to educate the masses on improving the quality of life in this country. Then where have we failed in addressing this very vital area of traffic control? There is only a single programme on television at least touching on the legal aspects of road use, but its message is lost when people only enjoy the hilarity of the ignorant’ behaviour in this comedy programme which is a true to life drama on the roads today.

Be it the Traffic Police, Commissioner of Motor Traffic or even the Supreme Court, no one can deny the fact that there hangs an enormous responsibility on the law enforcement authorities to take some drastic and remedial action against the deteriorating situation on road use that prevails today. To do this effectively, more television programmes to educate the public and the motorists alike should be frequently telecast with warnings of severe punishment, something similar to that of drink and drive offences, and make it abundantly clear about spot fines. Only through such effective programmes that the message can seep through to the thick heads of the errant Sri Lankan motorists long before we would be able to see a disciplined motorist society in Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, laws can be introduced as much as we like but if they are not implemented and confined to dust-filled racks and the law turns a blind eye to law breakers, what hope is there for road users in this country?

This is food for thought for the Ministry of Transport to carry out TV propaganda campaigns to get the message across and educate the public about pedestrian crossings and the motor traffic law of this country in general. Perhaps the Ministry of Transport could emulate the Ministry of Defence commercial - ‘Api Venuven Api……’ used to boost the morale of the gallant soldiers. That may perhaps bring about results and save human lives on the roads, though on a different dimension.