Elephants in the road and electrics on the rise

By David Thomson on Sat, 4 Feb 2017

There's nothing like experiencing motoring in a completely different context to freshen your perspectives on driving in the lower South Island. That's something I managed to do fairly well over a festive season break spent touring Sri Lanka.

Not that I spent an iota of time behind the wheel during what was a wonderful family trip; self-driving tourists are the exception in this south Asian island state, which is hardly surprising given the unique driving motoring challenges it poses, and the relative cheapness of hiring a vehicle with a driver.

The quality of roads in Sri Lanka is a lot better than one might expect, though many are narrow and winding (it's a pretty hilly country). But - a couple of hundred kilometres of tolled motorways aside - many are very crowded.

Buses, medium-sized trucks, minivans, cars, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled auto rickshaws) and scooters jostle for supremacy in an unequal vehicular contest in which size determines the pecking order; add in people wandering along the road, dogs routinely lying on it, and less- tame animal hazards ranging from peacocks to elephants - we encountered both - and there's rarely a dull moment to be had.

And little wonder, either, that on a per capita basis, the death rate in Sri Lanka in road accidents is roughly double that of New Zealand. Most, I suspect, involve collisions between buses or trucks and tuk-tuks, scooters and pedestrians.

Relatively slow open-road speeds prevent the road toll from being even higher: those few stretches of toll motorway excepted, the open- road speed limit is not more than 72kmh, and in places it's lower than that. One thing that surprised me in this chaotic driving world was the mix of cars. A few years ago the authorities decided that hybrids and pure electric cars were the way to a cleaner motoring future, and set up a tax and import duties regime to encourage their purchase.

As a result, Sri Lanka probably has one of the highest proportions of such vehicles in the world. While it's the most common, the Prius is but one of several Toyota hybrids that feature on the country's roads. Honda and Nissan also seem to have a good hybrid and pure electric foothold in the market. We saw a handful of premium-brand hybrids too, including a BMW i3, and (to our collective surprise) a brace of Porsche Panameras.

Hopefully the reduced emissions produced by such vehicles will go some small way to compensating for the emissions of the ever so many diesel buses, trucks, vans and armada of scooters and tuk-tuks.

After three weeks in this fascinating country, I've gained a fresh outlook on Kiwi motoring. I'll reveal more on this in the next issue of Drivesouth. Until then, safe and happy motoring, especially over this long weekend.

David Thomson