Self Driving in Sri Lanka

Self-driving is a great way to get around in Sri Lanka. It is also considerably cheaper than hiring car and driver. If you have experience in driving in cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi or Mumbai, driving in Colombo will be a breeze. With several international car rentals companies operating in Sri Lanka, it is possible to start your endeavor right from the Airport.

License Requirements

International Driving Permit

International Driving Permit

Sri Lanka recognizes the  International Driving Permit (IDP) with a valid foreign driving license. In addition to this, the vehicle must have the Revenue License and an Insurance certificate that covers at least 3rd party liabilities.

Basic Rules

Sri Lanka drives on the left side of the road as in the UK, Japan or Australia. Road signs are not different from most of the countries and can be understandable to anyone with a driving experience.


Most of the roads are two-lane roads, with one lane for each direction. There are four-lane and six-lane roads in Colombo suburbs and other major cities such as Kandy and Gall. If only one lane in each direction, lanes are separated using a white line similar to the markings used in the UK. Overtaking is allowed only when there is a dotted white line or double white line when the line on your side is dotted. Overtaking is prohibited when there is a single solid white line or double white lines. It is also prohibited to cross the single solid line if you are not turning right. Crossing the double white line is illegal (Cannot turn right).

If there is more than one lane in a single direction, lanes are separated by a dotted line and the line separating opposite direction lanes are separated by a double white line or using solid separators.  On these roads, slower traffic drives on left.


Traffic lights are common in Colombo suburbs and other major cities. Usually, there is a separate light for left turns. Otherwise, it is advisable to turn left only on a green light. If there are no traffic lights, priority should be given to the vehicles that turn right.

Pedestrian crossings

Pedestrian crossings are marked with yellow lines. The Lane dividing line turned to a while solid line few meters before and after the crossing lines. Overtaking is prohibited in the region. It is required to stop if pedestrians have entered the crossing.

Speed Limits

The maximum speed limit on normal roads is 70kmh. But in urban areas, it is usually marked as 50kmh. In expressways max is 100kmh. But there are some parts where the speed limit is lower than that. The speed limit in urban areas is also enforced at night.

Additional to these basic rules drink driving is prohibited as in most of the countries.

Avoiding Traffic Offenses

A traffic violation is very common in Sri Lanka. But don’t let that fact fool you. In some of the roads, some traffic rules are strictly enforced. It is good to be aware of the most common offenses you can easily get caught.

Lane rules

Lane offenses are the most common way of getting a traffic ticket in Sri Lanka. It is commonly seen that in four or six-lane roads, almost no one follows lanes in the same direction. With lots of small cars, bikes, and three-wheelers practically there are more than two or three lanes of traffic in each direction when there are only two or three marked lanes. Even the rule requires everyone to follow the lane, this rule is rarely enforced.

But outside the urban areas when there is only one lane in each direction, lane rules are usually enforced. Where there is a while solid line or double white solid lines it is common that two police officers hiding behind a tree somewhere to catch vehicles which cross the lines. In single lane roads, it is common tend to trap behind a slow-moving three wheeler or tractor and people to cross the lines to overtake. The police know this and monitor these places to catch violators.


With the heavy traffic on the Sri Lankan roads, you rarely get a chance to speed in the daytime. But at night with fewer vehicles, you get a chance to speed up. But in urban areas where the speed limit is 50kmh, this limit is enforced even in the night. It is ridiculous to think that you can get caught for speeding at 50kmh at 2 am when not a single vehicle or pedestrian in sight. But that is the reality.

So if you are driving at night, it is advisable to slow down in urban areas. And in the nonurban areas 70kmh limit is enforced regardless of the time. It is common to see police officers stopping vehicles at night for speeding in nonurban areas.  There is no specific tolerance limit and it is possible that you can get a fine for 51kmh in urban areas or 71kmh in nonurban areas.

In Sri Lanka, there are no speed cameras. Police officers monitor the speed using a handheld device. This same device is used in expressways also. If you overspend in an expressway you get the ticket when you exit. In expressways, it is commonly assumed to have a 10kmh tolerance. So driving less than 110kmh should be ok. But there are no any hard rules on this. The best approach would be stick into the 100kmh limit.

Drunk Driving

Usually in the night in urban areas police stop vehicles to catch drunk drivers. The police officer will ask for your license and insurance after stopping and he will try to smell. If suspected they can ask you for a breath-analysis and can be arrested.

What to do if get caught in a traffic offense

If a traffic police officer noticed you violating a traffic rule, he will stop the vehicle by a whistle and/or a hand signal if it is daytime or a red light or white torch in the night.

After stopping you can remain in the vehicle and a police officer will come to you and ask for the driving license. He will explain you the violation and will get your driving license into custody and issue you a temporary notice stating that your driving license is in custody.

Sometimes police stop you just to check the driving license and vehicle documents (Revenue license and Insurance). This usually happens late at night. Another intention of these steps is to catch drunk drivers.

Paying the fine

Most of the times you will also get a traffic ticket stating the offense and the amount of the fine. But rarely you will have to go to the police station with the temporary notice and get the ticket from the traffic department of the police station.  After you get the ticket you have to go to the nearest post office and pay the amount. You will get a receipt for the payment from the post office. You can collect your license after providing this receipt to the police station the next day.

But if you get the ticket directly from the police officer who stopped you, you can pay the fine to the nearest post office and collect your driving license from the same police officer. But you need to confirm with him that whether he will stay at the same point until you pay the fine and come back. You can also ask the police officer the location of the nearest post office. Please note that the post offices normally close at 3 pm.

If your offense is a severe one such as driving at very high speeds, parking on the payment or driving without a valid driving license you will get a notice to appear in the court. In this case, you need to consult your travel agency or someone knowledgeable.

Driving etiquette

Sri Lanka does not have a good reputation for safe and polite driving habits. If you keep up to the challenge following points in the mind.

Sounding the horn

Sounding the horn is not bad or offensive in Sri Lanka and sometimes it can be a friendly gesture. But people consider sounding horn continuously on their offensive. For example, if a motorcycle in front of going slowly and you want to overtake, you can let them know by sounding the horn one time. If they do not respond by giving you the way you will have to sound horn once or twice more with a bit of an aggression. The horn has become an integral part of driving in Sri Lanka and most people don’t care to give way if you don’t sound the horn. Basically, they expect it. So don’t hesitate to use it when necessary.

Flashing head-light

If you want to overtake someone on a single lane road (one lane in each direction), you can turn your signal on and flash your headlight. Most people will give you right of way when you flash headlight once or twice. A slight horn may help and this is not considered offensive. The headlight flashing is also used to let oncoming traffic know that there are cops on the road. So if an oncoming vehicle flash headlight at you beware of the cops!

Most people drive at night with the headlight on when the road is not lighted. People rarely dim their headlight for oncoming traffic. So you will have to remind them to dim the headlight by flashing your headlight.

Turning at a junction with no traffic lights

If there is no traffic light or a police officer to control the junction it is a challenging task. In Sri Lanka people rarely give way. So if you want to turn you need to crawl bit by bit towards the oncoming traffic until there is no space for coming vehicles to pass. So they will stop and you can take the turn. This sounds really bad and aggressive, but most of the times this could be the only way. If you are in the front, and you didn’t take the initiative people behind you will start sounding the horn at you and will make things messier.

Pedestrian crossings

Normally pedestrians do not expect you to stop to cross in most cases. Pedestrians usually wait for vehicles to pass to cross the road. But if the traffic is flowing continuously it is acceptable to stop and allow pedestrians to cross the road. Otherwise, if you are going to stop at each and every crossing, the drivers coming behind you will be very angry.

Safety tips

Most drivers, especially small cars, bikes, and three-wheelers will overtake you on both sides of the car on urban roads with slow moving traffic.

Be cautious of Motor Bicycles when turning left, or changing lanes.

When there are junctions in front of you, even you drive on the main road, it is possible that someone rushes into the main road from a by road.

On single lane roads, vehicles going in the opposite direction can come along your lane when overtaking. Especially buses sometimes drive on the wrong side of the road at very high speeds on narrow single lane roads and even in the curves. You should be ready to take your car to the side of the road to give way and avoid accidents. Because those drivers assume that you will get your car away even they are going on the wrong side. They will flash their headlights to tell you to go away. You should obey to avoid an accident.

Politician’s vehicles are also going at very high speeds with headlights and sounding horn. They may come in front of you driving on the wrong side of the road or if they come behind they will overtake you at very high speeds or horn or flash headlight at you, asking to give way.

Three wheelers and motorcycles rarely signal when stopping or turning. So expect those to turn or stop at any moment without notice.

Pedestrians can cross the road at any place. Especially in cities other than major cities, people cross the road in any place they wish. Dogs can also jump into the road in most places and also cattle in some areas. If you hit a pedestrian, and if the offense is yours, it is possible that people gathering around will beat you.

What to do if met with an accident

If you met with an accident and no one is injured it is not mandatory to notify the police. You should call the rental company and get the consultation. Usually, If both parties agree to cover the damage by their insurance the matter is settled there. But if the offense is yours and the other party does not want to claim their insurance or does not have a full insurance cover you may have to pay the damage. In Sri Lanka calming 3rd party insurance cover is troublesome and requires two court cases. Most people try to avoid this process by not claiming the 3rd party insurance if the amount is small. When you are renting a car you should check with the rental company whether you will have to pay the damage if you met with an accident and the offense is yours.

How to save time

Avoiding city traffic

Traffic Jams in rush hours in Colombo and suburbs are among the worst in the world. But if you plan your trips wisely you can avoid most of the traffic jams and make your trip a pleasant one.

The main international airport of Sri Lanka, Colombo International Airport is located about 35km north of the Colombo city center. (map link). Even though the airport is connected to Colombo by an expressway you need to travel final few kilometers via a regular road often with heavy traffic jams to reach Colombo Fort where most of the major hotels are located.

But if you do not have any specific reason to stay close to Colombo you can avoid these traffic jams by staying in a hotel in Negombo or Katunayaka. (map link). From Negombo, you can reach any of the popular tourist attractions bypassing the Colombo city traffic.

If you are interested in traveling in Colombo you should avoid morning and evening rush hours to stay away from traffic jams. Usually in the Weekdays 8 – 10 am in the morning and 4 – 8 pm in the evening should be avoided at all costs. It is not unusual to take more than 30 minutes to reach Colombo Fort from Peliyagoda (Where the expressway from airport ends). (map link).

Finding best routes to reach a destination

Try to get a car equipped with a GPS unit. If your car does not have a GPS unit you can always use Google Maps if you have a data connection. (Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased at the Airport). Google Maps have an excellent coverage of Sri Lankan roads and also provide the Google Street View facility. The downside is sometimes google suggests roads that are in pretty bad condition. So it is always advisable to stick to A grade and B grade roads whenever possible. If you have a vehicle with at least 6 inches of ground clearance you can tackle almost all the roads without any issues.

Gas stations

In Sri Lanka, the octane number of regular petrol (gasoline) is 92, and high octane petrol is 95 octane. 95 octane is not available at every gas station and difficult to find in rural areas. Luckily, most cars will do well with regular petrol without any issues. In rural areas, sometimes there can be about 50km between gas stations. In case you get an empty tank, sometimes you may be able to buy a bottle of gasoline from a local grocery store if it is a rural area. (Selling gasoline in shops other than gas stations is illegal in Sri Lanka). It is advisable to keep the tank filled up if you are traveling away from major cities.

With poor public transport facilities, self-driving is the cheapest and most comfortable way of traveling in Sri Lanka if you are up to the challenge.  No doubt it will make your trip a memorable one in one way or another.

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