A couple of weekends ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I was driving past the Apollo Hospital on the way to the supermarket and was approaching the pedestrian crossing opposite the hospital. Traffic was moderate for Colombo, and I’m doing around 30-kmph. A pedestrian gallops across the crossing in the usual I’m-Gonna-Cross-Here-So-Stop-You-Bastards stance necessary for using such crossings in Sri Lanka — arm, umbrella, or newspaper held up to catch attention, steely determined look firmly on face, brisk pace, etc. Elvitigala Road has three lanes in each direction with a center island, and I was in the inside lane, alongside the island, driving towards Kirillapone. I always try and stop for pedestrians on crossings and so I followed procedure and slowed to a stop.
The guy crosses in front of me, and as soon as he’s clear I start to roll. Just then, I notice a young woman about to step on to the crossing, three lanes away. She’s going to take half a minute to get to me, and I’m already on the crossing, so I just keep going. She crosses unhindered behind me and goes merrily on her way. So do I — or so I think.
I’ve barely gone fifty metres when a cop appears from beneath a shady tree and crosses two lanes of traffic, making cars brake and swerve, to flag me down. Puzzled, I steer across the centre and outside lanes to the pavement. Cop leans in on the passenger side and asks me for my licence. I ask him what the problem (actually, what his problem) is. He tells me that I did the right thing in letting the male pedestrian cross, but that I had violated the road rules by driving on before the woman had crossed.
I look at him in disbelief and point out that I didn’t hinder the pedestrian in anyway and that she had crossed without any problem. He says that this is not the point, and that it’s a violation he has to book me for. Now the cop speaking to me is the most junior of three, the other two — a sergeant and a sub-inspector — are still under the shady tree, watching disinterestedly.
Junior breaks off his conversation with me to flag down two more vehicles, clearly for the same offense as mine. While I wait for his return I see random pedestrians crossing the road without the aid of any crossing, dodging between vehicles, unencumbered by the presence of the guardians of the law. A hundred metres further on is the Park Road intersection, and I watch a bus run through the red light followed by a trishaw and a motorcycle that both do U-turns and head back past the hospital. The law enforcement trio cheerfully stop a van for driving across the pedestrian crossing.
Junior comes back to my car and demands my licence once more. I ask him if he expected me to have waited while every pedestrian who strolls up to the crossing has crossed, since it isn’t a light-controlled crossing. Junior shrugs and holds out his hand for the licence. I hand it over, pointing to the intersection and the fact that a bus is cutting across three lanes of traffic to turn onto Park Road, through a red light, of course. Junior feigns interest and squints into the distance. Then he tells me that he’s there to enforce the law where he is and not where he isn’t. I ask him why he doesn’t then position himself where dangerous offenses are being committed and not where minor violations are easy to detect. I suggest that maybe the shady tree is the determining factor, and he walks off to deliver my licence to the sarge. When he returns with the charge sheet I ask him if he isn’t ashamed of himself and the disgrace he brings to his uniform. I say it loud enough to see the sub-inspector’s jaw tighten. Clearly annoyed but unsure if my lecture is actually a violation, Junior drops the charge sheet onto my passenger seat and walks off to continue fighting crime.
Fuming impotently at the injustice, I drive on to the intersection and wait patiently at the red light. When it turns green, I turn onto Park Road; but not without having to use my horn to blast a way past a trishaw that runs through the red light from the other direction.
When I get to the supermarket, I glance at the charge sheet and discover that it is not merely an issue of paying an unfair fine, but that I must appear in court. For driving at 200-kmph, one is fined a thousand rupees; for driving across a pedestrian crossing at 15-kmph, I have to appear in court. Makes you wonder what the highway code considers the greater offense.
So yesterday, I went to the traffic courts at Hulftsdorf at 9am, in long sleeves that covered my tattoos, earrings in my pocket, and phone on silent. All was expected to go well. I looked around for a parking spot in the busy courts neighbourhood and narrowly miss running over an elderly lawyer on a pedestrian crossing. Yes, it can’t get much worse than that.
I walk in and am mobbed by the usual crowd of middle-aged men in bad suits. One examines my charge sheet, and since it is the Narahenpita police that have charged me, I am handed over to a grandfatherly looking gentleman who is wearing brown suede shoes with his black suit. I assume there’s a system where each lawyer covers one or two cop shops. He assures me that it is a minor violation, and that there’s no danger of losing my licence. I hand over two thousand rupees, aware that this is already double what a speeding charge would have cost me. He tells me that the court will sit at 9:30 and I head off to the canteen for a Chinese roll, a plain tea, and a smoke.
Half an hour later, a police sergeant announces to the crowded court that there is a delay and the court will now sit at 10:15am. More smoking and hanging around. I watch the judge rush out of the court for a “ceremonial sitting” somewhere else, his path cleared by policemen who bulldoze through the crowd. A paper pasted to the front door of the court wishes everyone a happy and prosperous 2012. A lawyer dozes in his chair on the court verandah, one sockless ankle crossed over the other. An hour later, the judge rushes back in, the same bulldozing cop at the fore. I crowd into the packed, sweaty courtroom and try to work my way to the front where they are now calling older cases.
It’s almost an hour before my case is called, and I have barely placed a foot into the dock when I hear the court crier call out “Fined one thousand rupees!” I gratefully retreat from the dock and am ushered over to a uniformed Prisons Department clerk who jots my name down in a ledger and points me to the “cell”, which is a fenced in enclosure in one corner, similar to the areas they have for children at Odel, minus the bouncy balls and bright colours. Fifteen minutes later, I’m allowed to pay my fine to a pretty courts clerk who officiously tells me that I must return after 1:30pm to collect my licence. I walk out of the courts having spent three times as much as I did a couple of months ago for speeding on the expressway.
Very few of Colombo’s pedestrian crossings are controlled by lights, and even these are so badly policed that pedestrians just ignore the lights and cross as they please. A busy city like Colombo cannot have uncontrolled pedestrian crossings because it means that a driver (according to the letter of the law) must sit and wait while any number of pedestrians cross at their leisure. This is ridiculous, and you often see drivers eventually forcing their way through. If the police are present, they can charge him with an offense. Cities must have their crossings controlled by lights and these must be enforced, just as jaywalking must be policed. Colombo’s roads basically ignore the fact that pedestrians and motor vehicles both use the same space. So we have pedestrians crossing the road twenty-five metres from a marked crossing, ensuring that the importance of the actual crossing is diminished in the eyes of drivers who feel it is pointless to stop for a pedestrian on a crossing when he must anyway stop for those not on a crossing. We also have roads with no pavements, or pavements blocked by parked vehicles, that force pedestrians to walk in the path of vehicles. Instead of making sure the system works well, we make it even more unworkable by introducing “double crossing” which have two lanes for pedestrians going in opposite directions. Really? Is that the problem; that pedestrians might bump into each other when crossing the road? It’s a ridiculous system, and the fact that driving across a pedestrian crossing is considered more serious than speeding or running a red light is evidence of that absurdity.
For all our rules, we’re actually saying that the rules don’t matter.