‘Recognising the problem’ isn’t enough: you also have to try and solve it

So for the government to stolidly refuse to ever address this problem, simply because the ‘absolute majority’ does not want it to… well, it’s a little like a rehab agency ‘refusing to help an addict, because the addict doesn’t want to be helped'

I assume you’ve all heard the expression that goes (words to the effect of): “The first step towards solving any problem, is recognising that there is one”.

That, at least, was the version made famous by Jeff Daniels in the 2012 series, ‘The Newsroom’. And even if, like me, you’ve never actually watched that particular TV show: you will probably still recognise it as the closing line of his classic ‘Why-America-Isn’t-Such-A-Great-Country’ speech (which has since gone on to become a viral internet meme, in its own right).

But of course, there are other ways to express the same sentiment. In Parliament last Monday, for instance, Labour MP Omar Farrugia said more or less exactly the same thing, about Malta’s traffic situation:

“Discussion on the future of transport in Malta must start with an acknowledgment that the public is ‘addicted’ to private cars,” he began. Then he went on to say that:

> “People will continue choosing their private cars because it’s a more comfortable option.”

> “I’m part of the problem myself, because my days are so packed [that] I find the car more comfortable to get around,” and;

> “The absolute majority of people agree with me.”

Farrugia concluded by asking the (presumably rhetorical) question: “What can we do to change this culture, [and] to encourage youths to make other transport choices […]?”

Now: you will probably already be aware that neither Jeff Daniels, nor Omar Farrugia, actually came up with that line themselves. Consciously or otherwise, they were both quoting from the celebrated ‘Twelve-Step Model of Recovery’, originally popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous back in the late 1930s.

‘Recognition of the problem’ is, in fact, the very first of those 12 steps: and let’s face it… the remaining 11 would be kind of useless without it, don’t you think?

After all, there is precious little point in trying to ‘cure yourself of an addiction’… if you are totally unaware (or, much more likely, ‘in denial’) that you even suffer from any such addiction in the first place. Likewise, no one in his right mind would ever feel compelled to ‘seek help’… for a medical problem they didn’t even know they had.

So far, so very obvious. By the same token, however: it would be just as pointless to even take that first step at all – and to acknowledge that: ‘Yes, I have a problem’; ‘Yes, I need help’, etc., etc. – if there was nothing that could actually be done to solve your problem, once you’ve duly recognised its existence.

And that, of course, is why AA famously proposed a ‘TWELVE-Step Model’ – as opposed to a ‘One-Stop Solution’.  For just as an alcoholic may ‘need help’, to overcome his or her addiction… there also has to be some form of ‘help’ available, for the solution to ever work in practice.

Naturally, this counts for all addictions, not just alcoholism: including the one Omar Farrugia was talking about, when he said all of the above.

To put that another way: it’s all very well and good, for government MPs to finally acknowledge that Malta’s dependence on cars does indeed constitute a major health problem, for the country as a whole (with consequences that are actually far deadlier, than addictions which fall under the ‘substance-abuse’ category)…

At the same time, however: what’s the point, anyway? What sense does it make to belatedly recognise our car-addiction as a ‘problem’; if we never actually proceed to Step Two (still less, Steps 3, 4, 5, all the way to 12), and try to actually SOLVE this blasted problem, once and for all?

So tell you what: let’s take it upon ourselves to try and answer that presumably ‘rhetorical’ question, shall we? Now that Omar Farrugia has (correctly, I might add) identified our over-reliance on cars as an ‘addiction’… what can we do to overcome this addiction, beyond merely acknowledging the fact that it exists?

Part of the answer, as it happens, was unwittingly supplied by Farrugia himself, just a few seconds earlier. Remember? “People will continue choosing their private cars, because it’s a more comfortable option [than public transport]…”

Now: I don’t claim to be an expert in ‘addiction-rehab therapy’, or anything like that… but even a layman such as myself, can immediately come up with a workable solution to a problem of that particular nature.

Ready? Here goes: MAKE PRIVATE CARS LESS ‘COMFORTABLE’ TO USE, THAN PUBLIC TRANSPORT!! (I mean, honestly: it’s not exactly ‘Internal-Combustion Science’, is it now?)

And this is something that government could very easily do, at any time it likes… and in any number of (entirely reasonable) ways, too.

For instance: it could always take up Carmel Cacopardo’s suggestion, to simply remove the government subsidy on fuel for motorised transport: thereby making the private car a considerably more expensive option, than a public transport service that has only just become ‘free for all users’.

After all, this would be entirely analogous to the approach we’ve already taken, to combat yet another addiction that is harmful to our country’s health: smoking. As I recall, government’s efforts to address this addiction, was in fact to make tobacco products as expensive as possible: to the point that more than 80% of what you pay for a packet of cigarettes today, is actually just tax…

On the subject of taxes, these could also be introduced for private vehicles: if not for ALL cars… at least, for those households which have more than one car per family (note: in some of the particularly serious cases of car-addiction, it could even be ‘two or three cars, per individual inhabitant’).

Another thing the government could also consider doing, is revising the costs involved in applying for, and acquiring, a driver’s licence: so that Malta no longer remains BY FAR the cheapest country in Europe, in which to actually become a motorist. (Oh, and it would also help to issue driver’s licenses only to those candidates who actually pass their test… instead of the ones who happen to be related to a certain minister. Just sayin’…)

While it’s at it, the government could also start investing in better infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and other users of non-motorised transport… instead of spending all those untold millions, on never-ending road-building projects that that are actually designed to make our roads even more ‘comfortable’ to drive on (thus feeding into the same addiction, that we are supposedly trying to ‘cure’.)

And the list goes on and on. We could be introducing alternative modes of public transport, to a bus system that – however ‘free’ you make it – still remains unattractive to the vast majority of the Maltese public (partly for reasons of ‘cultural resistance’; but partly also because those buses are still stuck in the same old traffic congestion, as everyone else…)

And lastly, we could also consider the unthinkable: and set limits to the number of cars actually imported into the country, each and every single day…

There is, in fact, no shortage of measures and initiatives that Omar Farrugia’s government COULD be taking, if it genuinely wanted to do something about a national addiction that is now causing anywhere up to (I kid you not) 22 deaths a year. [Note: And that’s just from traffic accidents. It doesn’t include the many thousands who suffer from – and occasionally die from – respiratory diseases, on account of air-pollution caused chiefly by cars…)

But… what IS the government doing, when faced with a problem of such positively lethal proportions? The short answer, I suppose, is… nothing at all.

Nothing, that is, beyond the introduction of a free public transport system, which has so far failed to alleviate the traffic problem in any noticeable way (and perhaps unsurprisingly, too: for if even government MPs like Omar Farrugia admit that they never actually use it, because they still find their private car too ‘comfortable’ to relinquish… why the heck should anyone else reason any differently?)

I guess that leaves us with only one other question to contemplate, at this stage: and that is, what government SHOULDN’T be doing, when faced with the same ‘car-addiction’ problem.

I’ve only just mentioned one of the items on this list, but it bears repeating anyway. If government MPs really want to fight this national car-addiction problem of ours… the very last thing they should be doing, is undermining faith in the public transport system (by making a public show of how little they trust it themselves.)

Above all, however: government should NOT be basing its entire national transport strategy, only on the basis of what ‘the absolute majority wants’.  Yes: of course, the ‘absolute majority’ agrees with Omar Farrugia, when it comes to choosing private vehicles over public transport. And yes: of course the ‘absolute majority’ will disagree with the imposition of any new taxes; or any other measure, that might make driving their car any less ‘comfortable’, than they’d like it to be.

But Omar Farrugia said it himself, didn’t he? The absolute majority, in this country, just happens to consist of people who are: a) ‘addicted to cars’, and; b) ‘unaware’ – or ‘in denial’ – that this addiction of theirs, in actually a problem which threatens their own lives, and everyone else’s.

So for the government to stolidly refuse to ever address this problem, simply because the ‘absolute majority’ does not want it to… well, it’s a little like a rehab agency ‘refusing to help an addict, because the addict doesn’t want to be helped.’

Sort of defeats the entire purpose, doesn’t it?