Colombo by night – Grand Theft Auto’s lost module


Night driving amplifies risks of 3 typical Colombo traffic hazards: checkpoints, odd road conditions, and speed demons. The third hazard a speciality of the night which I will elaborate later. Even if you are familiar with the first two, the lighting conditions makes the game deadlier. Many thanX to Dili for the title suggestion 😉

On the positive side, Colombo’s streets are quite well lit for a third world city at war. Miraculously some side streets also have functional street lights. Most of the time the lighting blinks from the orange glare of sodium vapour lamps to the green-purple of fluorescents to pools of inky darkness. In the gloom lurks the usual surprises. Some deadly, all very inconvenient.

By 10pm the roads seem impossibly empty. Which seem to make anyone on the road seem immediately suspicious. Most traffic lights have taken to flashing the yellow light – that institutional symbol of anarchy and honking. You are tempted to floor it. To have the thrill of hurling down streets that few hours ago crawled bumper to bumper. An unwise temptation.

This is the time when another type of checkpoint pops up – speed traps. What other time could you catch anyone going anywhere near the speed limit, let alone over it during daytime? The classic tale I have heard is very similar to Pericles’ comment about getting bagged at 2am for doing 60kmph on the way back from the air port. I’ve never been caught for speeding in Sri Lanka or anywhere in the world. Mainly because I make it point to drive a careful 5kmph under the limit even at night. Boring yes but it keeps me alive and frees up time to do more interesting things than running around paying fines.

In Colombo, there are benefits in puttering sedately besides avoiding speed traps. The most serious danger are changers brought on by Colombo’s controversial one way street system. One some roads the signage still consists of temporary signs. I doubt if these would be visible in the darkness in a speeding chariot. Miss one, and you could be setting your self for a head on collision. Don’t let familiarity lull you – streets open and close to traffic based on the vagaries of the time of day, the weekend, festivals, and the security situation (aka the latest bomb blast of the travel plans of a terrorist target).

Another serious danger are odd road conditions like a new pot hole, tire shredding debris or casually tossed up “security barrier”. Slower speed translates into a better chance of controlling your chariot if you hit one of these things. Most major check points tend to be well light. But you do get barely visible security barricades put up now and then. Usually around the latest mansion of a politician or the latest government ministry, department, commission or other bureaucratic pustule. These are supposed be painted with glow-in-the-dark paint. But after the usual third world wear and tear these things are invisible until they leap into your headlights.

I have heard that the police are off the streets by 3am. Pericles has helpfully confirmed part of the details. Apparently 3am is the cut off time for overtime pay for police officer -something can’t verify. Clearly a question for those of you in the know -who also know where the comment box is by now.

To be continued

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