Driving in Sri Lanka - Are You Brave Enough?

Every developing nation has some pretty exciting traffic conditions - but Sri Lanka stands out.

Photo © iStock/Asergieiev

After driving through the busy streets of Kenya, I thought I was brave. And then I drove through Colombo... For those intrepid souls who want to give it a go, here's a survival guide to driving in Sri Lanka.

The first thing to remember: follow the rules. The problem is, there aren't any.

Cars, mopeds and rickshaw are all vying for space so getting around isn't easy.

Traffic in Sri Lanka is congested. Narrow two-lane highways, overloaded trucks, poorly driven buses and a variety of vehicles on the road, ranging from ox carts and bicycles to new four-wheel-drive vehicles, make driving dangerous.

Road Conditions in Sri Lanka

  • Erratic driving is common and as a result, road accidents are frequent.
  • Pedestrians and animals often appear in the road without warning.
  • Vehicles do not stop at pedestrian crossings.
  • Be particularly careful when overtaking and when overtaking vehicles are coming towards you.
  • If you drive, make sure you are comprehensively insured.
  • Driving at night outside Colombo and driving by motorbike are particularly hazardous.
  • Unexpected road blocks and one-way streets are common and may not be clearly marked - so watch your step.
  • Buses are notorious for driving fast and rarely giving way. They are often poorly maintained. A number of serious bus accidents have been reported over recent years.

Hints for Driving in Sri Lanka

  • The roads are like chess boards, move where you can. Don't follow the normal rules of left and right.
  • Simply trust your instincts, ascertain the direction, and proceed. Adherence to road rules leads to much misery and occasional fatality. Most drivers don't drive, but just aim their vehicles in the generally intended direction.
  • Beware pedestrian crossings - Don't stop! You may do so only if you enjoy being bumped in the back. Pedestrians have been strictly instructed to cross only when traffic is moving slowly or has come to a dead stop because some minister is in town.
  • Blowing your horn is not a sign of protest as in some countries. Sri Lankans "toot" to express an array of emotions - most of the time it's not used as a way of asking pedestrians to get out of the way.
  • Stay clear of locals buses, just like Kenya's Matatus, these packed vehicles are steel coffins. They move at speed and drivers care little for people in front. Profit over people is their motto.
  • The bigger buses are no better and travellers should avoid them, unless you want a white-knuckle experience.

Most bus passengers are given free passes and during rush hours, there is absolute mayhem. There are passengers hanging off other passengers, who in turn hang off the railings and the overloaded bus leans dangerously, defying laws of gravity.

And while we are describing daytime driving in downtown Colombo, life at night can be even more exciting.

Night-time driving in Sri Lanka is like Russian Roulette. Drunk drivers are rampant and very dangerous, so stick to the path and walk. you always get a better feel of the town using your feet.

But if, after all this, you still want to drive in Sri Lanka, have your lessons between 8 pm and 11 am - when the police have gone home and the locals can enjoy being crazy together.

But on the flipside, experiencing traffic in a developing nation is one of the true joys for a traveller. Just buckle up, hold on and keep a blindfold handy.

10 Comments

  • hpmtissera said

    I recently wrote a blog post with some more tips and tricks. Hope it will be helpful. http://lanka-guide.com/driving-in-sri-lanka/

  • Goon said

    Hi,

    I have several years of experience of driving in both Australia and Sri Lanka. I have done the tests (and passed the first time) in both cars and bikes in both countries

    I reckon anyone from anywhere can drive in Sri Lanka. But it takes time to adjust. The subconscious habits one uses in a developed country will not work in Sri Lanka. New habits will need to be developed.

    Because driving etiquette in Sri Lanka is different (if there is any), anxiety for the foreign driver arises from being unware and uncertain of the road etiquette in Sri Lanka. This anxiety can be overcome with a weeks practice in Colombo if one comes in with can-do postives attitude.

    Your chess board analogy is quite accurate. The mindset of any Sri Lankan driver is not complex at all, and can be observed directly at the counter any Shop/boutique/cafe/Street store/grocery shop/market. There is no queue at the counter. The person who fights their way to front of the counter and verbally gets the attention of the cashier will get served first. There is no order, no etiquette. Courtesy is not practiced at all, it doesn't matter if the man you pushed passed was there before you, he will do the same to you in a few seconds.

    The same goes on the road. There is no courtesy. You do not give way to traffic. If you are entering an intersection, you enter slowly regardless if there is oncoming traffic. Oncoming traffic will slow down, or they will simply go around you if they are in a hurry. Bikes will scoot around you with no notice, the best way to deal with them is to hold your ground, and ignore what they are doing until they are directly in front of you. You will hardly reach speeds above 60kmph. In the speeds of 30-60kays, seasoned Sri Lankan drivers are professionals in hazard perception compared to the standard Australian driver. This in combination with the relatively slow speeds in traffic is what allows them to manourve through traffic without prangs in Colombo, in spite of the lack of etiquette.

    Take home message, if you are driving in Colombo, it will take a week or 2 to adapt to reduced levels of anxiety. If it's a short stay, best to use cabs or uber, and not deal with anxiety at all. Same goes for outside of Colombo, but the traffic is far tamer in comparison

    Goonz

  • Run said

    I have driven in Sri Lanka and uk. Most of the above is accurate. However I feel sri Lankans utilise the road much better than uk drivers due to no rules rule. I also agree there are lots of accidents. Most of them are mostly due to trishows and bikes. The ration of trishow and bikes to cars in sl is around 3 to 1 while in uk it is almost 1 to 100. If sri Lankans can get rid of these vehoclea i am sure the roads will be pretty fast as well as well utilised.

  • save said

    I am driving in the USA and once in a while in Sri Lanka during my visits. I think Sri Lanka drivers may be the most barbarian and unethical drivers in the world.

    The no road rule is ideal for Sri Lanka as 99% of drivers do not what they are. Unbelievably packed buses and trains are like vehicles transporting dead bodies.

    The drivers never allow pedestrians to cross the road. They honk and ask them to be away from the road as the road is their mother's property. If traffic is so terrible ( unless you cross in mid night), these lawless drivers stop on the crossing even though they know they cannot move. their ultimate goal it to kill someone when they on the wheel.

    Also, traffic fines are not properly functioning in this country. So a driver may kill someone and easily escape if the driver is lucky for his next prey.

    If you ever happen to be in this country, be careful.

  • Rohitha said

    I doubt the motive of the writer is to pass some advise to fellow motorists or to just something out of curiosity just like in CNN.
    I advise to compare road accident statistics and see if all these are true.
    Road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants - 17.4 - World average 17.4, Better than Malaysia, China and Kuwait
    Road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles - 70.6 - Western Pacific average - 69, Much better than South Asia, Eastern Mediterranean, Middle east and Africa

    I fully agree that it's not like in Europe, Aus or USA, but for sure, not as bad as mentioned in the article. Also I noted that writer has purposefully picked photographs from Ultra remote areas to express his inner motives. Writer also fails to reckon that Sri Lanka has some excellent roads where you could drive over hundreds of Kms without slowing down for a single "Pot hole", which are better than Singapore, USA (at-least New Orleans and New York - where I live).

  • Karin said

    Yes I agree with Rohitha. The writer is deliberately defaming Sri Lanka for some reason of his own. Not a single pic shows the beautiful roads and modern cars that are the reality - those photos are taken either in a very remote part of the country or are extremely outdated.

    Can't remember when I last saw cattle on the road! Sri Lanka may have been a primitive country but once, but no longer!

    Yes, some drivers do drive crazily but the majority are ok!.. greatly improves your driving skills when driving in Sri Lanka

  • Tanja said

    Maybe driving in big cities in Sri Lanka ist not that fun but driving around outside the cities is wonderful. It's beautiful and not that dangerous. It's simply amazing. I can totally recommend exploring the streets of Sri Lanka. http://srilanka-roadtrip.com/

  • Viraj said

    I cant agree with this writer becouse it’s not as bad as mentioned in the article. Photos are very old and rural areas.

    Of course there are traffic in colombo and some major citie areas but sri lanka have very nice and perfect road system in country side.

  • Lee said

    Those who are saying driving in Sri Lanka has approved are completely biased. You must state the fact for what it is, despite being Sri Lankan. This is no time for being nationalistic.

    The morning traffic is simply terrible. Average speed within the Colombo suburbs is 12 - 20 Km per hour. Buses do not go in the bus lane, even when a nicely demarcated lane exists on the Kollupitiya side (Galle road). They will completely cross over from right to left, to reach the bus stop - simply by using their huge size as a fist.
    Need I say of all the three wheelers. They are like pests swarming everywhere. They go at their own speed - they damn please, well below the minimum speed limit (when they are in front of everyone else); But will honk at you like mad, if you are in a car and is in front.
    By the way, I have lived in Sri Lanka since I was small, and the road users weren't this bad. It is a social issue, with a lot of uneducated people gaining access to cheap vehicles.

  • Pasinda Bimsara said

    I'm a Sri Lankan and I find this quite accurate. Sri Lankans are still like barbarians and yet years far from being civilized since they are even not ready to admit their own faults. Not only at road but also at supermarkets, they behave the same. Many of them don't even know whether there is a law, some believe such rules doesn't exist in the country. Every single time I'm on road I feel like surrounded with vehicles driven by monkeys. Hit an run is a quite normal thing for tuktuk drivers and bus drivers, they have zero respect for other people's lives. No one is following lane rules and the only law applied in Sri Lanka is the jungle law which the biggest and the furious one wins.

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