Road safety is everyone’s responsibility

Experience also shows that a combination of education and strict enforcement yields results. Let us not wait for another accident before finally heeding to expert advice

In recent months and years, Malta’s road safety standards have declined severely. A recent European Transport Safety Council report revealed that, in 2016, Malta registered the largest increase in road deaths, with fatalities doubling over the previous year. Malta was also one of the only two EU countries to have registered a higher number of road deaths when compared to 2010.

Data released by the National Statistics Office also confirms an increase in both the number of cars on the road and, separately, an increase in traffic accidents.

At a glance, there seems to be a clear correlation between accident statistics and the number of cars on the road. But while this may appear obvious, it is in fact only part of the bigger picture. Experts concur that one of the major causes of road accidents is indiscipline. And that cannot be blamed on the number of cars, or the road network, or any other aspect of the country’s infrastructure. We must also blame ourselves.

As former Assistant Police Commissioner Josie Brincat candidly put it in comments to MaltaToday:

“Malta is a small country, with a big heart but we’re undisciplined and selfish. Drivers are arrogant and over speed: the impact of over speeding is evident from the injuries sustained. If one is careless, but driving within limits, the injuries sustained will not be as grievous as when one is speeding.”

Considered one of Malta’s foremost traffic experts, Brincat said there were four key principles in tackling the increase in traffic accidents: road infrastructure, education, enforcement and deterrents.

It is only the latter two that directly involve discipline: and the effectiveness of any such measure depends as much on the implementation by the authorities, as on the willingness of Maltese drivers to adhere to the rules.

Sadly, both these aspects leave much to be desired. Despite a clear spike in traffic-related road fatalities, the authorities have been reluctant to step up the enforcement of traffic laws. Breathalysers are still used mainly after accidents – after the damage has been done, so to speak – and only very rarely in random spot-checks. Brincat also points out that our approach seems to be geared towards handing out (mostly ineffectual) fines, and not with educating drivers at all.

 “Educational campaigns should be all year round and not just during Christmas or summer time: unfortunately, a lot of campaigns are done in hiccups but they need to be ongoing and consistent. This educational drive needs to be at all levels – including at primary schools,” Brincat said.

He also argued that the presence of enforcement officers – be it police officers, Transport Malta officials or wardens – needs to be seen and felt.

“What’s the point of someone simply receiving a fine for texting while driving, when the officer could have actually stopped the driver and informed him of the consequences of his actions? Fines need to act as a deterrent as well.”

But if a culture change is needed at institutional level, it is needed all the more among the population at large. Jonathan Joslin, a consultant at Mater Dei’s accident and emergency department, complained that no number of fatal accidents seems to have any effect on self-discipline:

“No one seems to be listening. The ones who are dying are young. How many more educational campaigns can be done? It’s down to the people who need to start listening. People must understand that their actions have consequences.”

Likewise, Adrian Galea – president of the Malta Insurance Association and member of the Malta Road Safety Council – argues that whilst, on average, Maltese drivers are good drivers, their behaviour on the road is often dangerously erratic.

Galea draws comparison between student drivers and licensed drivers: “We do know what is required to drive well. However, the sad reality is that we couldn’t be bothered. Some may attribute this to a ‘Mediterranean culture’, in that given the chance, ‘I’ll break the law’.”

According to Galea, Nordic countries are the example to follow, that is where discipline reigns supreme.

“Discipline is good for the roads, because you don’t have to guess whether the other driver is going to obey a stop sign or a red light or going to give way at a roundabout; whether one is going to overtake even if road markings prohibit it.”

The second-guessing is rendering Malta’s driving patterns, and traffic in general, chaotic simply because of lack of discipline, he said.

Other issues concern entirely avoidable distractions. Brincat observes that “driving distraction comes not only in the form of texting, but also in smoking, eating or drinking, and applying makeup.”

These are all issues that can successfully be addressed through education. But a proper and effective punitive system may also be required. Malta is still one of the few countries where penalty points apply solely to probationary drivers. This is not a strong enough deterrent. Ideally, there should be a mix of hefty financial penalties, and penalty points accumulated on a driving licence – risking revocation of a licence in case of repeated offences.

Experience also shows that a combination of education and strict enforcement yields results. Let us not wait for another accident before finally heeding to expert advice.

 

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