‘Warnings’ might not be enough

Faced with an apparently widespread disregard for road safety, the government must ramp up its efforts for more effective policing

28 February 2017, 10:33am
One does not inculcate better driving standards only by issuing warnings or any other form of disciplinary measure
One does not inculcate better driving standards only by issuing warnings or any other form of disciplinary measure
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici recently proposed the introduction of a ‘traffic warning system’, which would empower traffic wardens to (among others) issue a warning ticket for soft contraventions such as parking in an incorrect space.

“The idea is for a person to educate himself, and send the message that we are not chasing fines but we want the public to become more educated when on the roads,” he said.

Among the details of this proposal are a change to the breathalyser rules which would allow the test to be carried out by wardens (although the police would still have to be called in the case of a driver exceeding the legal limit). Another innovation is a points-system, similar to the one already in place for new drivers who are on probation. Bonnici added that the accumulated points would be erased after one year: again, the idea behind this proposal is to sensitise motorists to their responsibilities.

On paper, these initiatives are praiseworthy and merit further discussion in parliament. Nonetheless, given the increasingly problematic nature of traffic in Malta, they are unlikely to be enough. As things stand, road safety has become a major concern. Even the US Department of State warns in the ‘TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS’ travel report on Malta, that “Maltese drivers may drive more aggressively and with less caution than visitors anticipate.”

One immediately identifiable shortcoming with the proposals concern their effectiveness as tools of civic education. Bonnici is certainly right that many of the problems associated with traffic in Malta are down to a lack of awareness of basic traffic regulations... but if the idea is to teach better driving, the enforcement stage is manifestly too late. 

One does not inculcate better driving standards only by issuing warnings or any other form of disciplinary measure: ideally, people ought to be educated before getting behind the wheel, not after the traffic infringement has already taken place.

This is an experience Malta has already been through in the past. In the early 1990s – when, it must be said, awareness of basic regulations was much lower – TVM ran a series of educational advertisements aimed at improving the standards of driving. The cartoon-style ads were the butt of many jokes at the time – the expression ‘Ha noqghod quddiem’ (let me sit in front) even became almost a proverb in its own right.

Yet those ads were incredibly effective. It is largely thanks to television – not driving lessons, still less traffic wardens – that people have generally become familiarised with the basic rule governing the right of way at roundabouts, for instance. 

Naturally this does not mean that a different style of law enforcement might not also help. But it remains unclear why such an extraordinarily successful initiative as that educational campaign was never since repeated. There is an entire new generation of motorists who never watched those ads on TV: it may be a coincidence, but the roundabout rule is no longer as strictly observed as it was until recently.

Another consideration is that it is not just motorists who need to be educated (though this category remains the highest priority). Pedestrians and cyclists, too, need to be more mindful of safety issues. The system proposed by Bonnici will not increase awareness among these and other categories. For that, a more national form of education campaign is needed.

On the subject of cyclists and motorcyclists, this is arguably one area where civic education is needed the most. In a country which is so heavily reliant on cars for transport – with the result that traffic is often at a standstill – it makes sense to encourage bicycle use as much as possible (note: there are various health considerations, including exercise and air pollution). 

But with car drivers often displaying scant regard for anything on two wheels, people are understandably reluctant to risk using a bike. Paradoxically this increases traffic, as it translates directly into more cars on the road.

An educational campaign would do well to stress the car driver’s responsibility towards cyclists while driving. 

Secondly, it is debatable whether the proper response to the situation is to relax existing enforcement levels (as these proposals would effectively do). Part of the traffic problem Malta now faces on its roads is undeniably the lack of discipline of different types of motorists, ranging from those who simply think they can park anywhere they like at the expense of passing traffic; to those who are a danger to others through reckless driving.

Recent statistics strongly suggest this problem is increasing. In 2016, 24 people lost their lives in traffic accidents. Warning systems may be an appropriate response to minor infringements such as illegal parking... but not for dangerous habits such as texting while driving, or (even worse) driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

Faced with an apparently widespread disregard for road safety, the government must ramp up its efforts for more effective policing on the ground, that can clamp down on traffic breaches and  dangerous driving  (rarely have police been seen using breathalysers during road checks outside entertainment spots, for instance). Anything less will only make the road safety situation worse.