Laws are useless without enforcement

 We have in many ways improved our traffic infrastructure over the years: perhaps it is time to revise our traffic policing methods accordingly

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It is never wise to base an assessment of any situation only on the basis of isolated cases. So even if three traffic fatalities occurred in Malta in just three days – in itself, it does not prove that the road safety situation is deteriorating.

But those fatalities cannot realistically be described as ‘isolated’. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the road safety situation in Malta is, in fact, getting worse and not better. 2018 is not yet three months old, and already seven have been killed on the road in Malta. And there is ample evidence that these statistics are on the rise.

In 2016, a European Transport Safety Council report revealed that 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.

This data has been corroborated by data independently released by the National Statistics Office, which also confirms an increase in traffic accidents.

Part of the reason for the alarming growth in traffic fatality statistics can be ascribed to the steadily growing number of cars on the road. But this, in itself, cannot be the only determining factor. Vehicles do not crash into each other simply because of overcrowding or lack of space. In theory (i.e., if everyone stuck to the rules) there should be no difference at all to accident statistics, no matter how many more cars are introduced.

There would, however, be severe consequences for the traffic situation... and this may well increase the tension or stress involved in driving, giving rise to impatience and road-rage that may in turn fuel more accidents.

But it remains an indirect cause. We cannot ignore the fact that such unacceptably high levels of fatalities are also down to our lack of discipline on the road. The number of vehicles has gone up, but the national standards of driving, road safety and (especially) law enforcement have not increased accordingly. And this, despite the fact that Malta’s traffic laws themselves have been recently upgraded, precisely to address road safety issues.

Last month, new amendments to the traffic legislation came into force, aimed at fostering a greater sense of responsibility in drivers, with particular emphasis on drink-driving. Harsher penalties were introduced for people caught driving while under the influence of alcohol, with first-time offenders now facing a €1,800 fine (up from €1,200) and up to six months imprisonment (instead of three months). Multiple offenders are now liable to a €3,000 fine and up to a year’s imprisonment.

More significantly, the amendments were supposed to empower local wardens, with reasonable suspicion, to stop drivers and have them take a breathalyser test on the spot, before calling in the police in cases of drivers found to be above the new alcohol limits.

But while these measures are both timely and commendable, it remains debatable whether they can be expected to have any lasting effect. In the absence of proper enforcement, laws are worth no more than the paper they are printed on. These amendments in particular do not seem to have coincided with any significant beefing up of the enforcement sector: it is up to local wardens’ discretion whether to use their new powers or not. Meanwhile, their number has not increased, and the same could be said for police presence on the roads.

More than just ‘presence’, however, what is needed is a reboot of national traffic enforcement policy and execution. If traffic wardens are to monitor the roads for erratic or dangerous driving, they cannot also be expected to simultaneously monitor parked cars for parking or licensing violations. The only way to truly empower local wardens to fulfil their new obligations is to create a specific, mobile branch that is solely responsible for traffic surveillance.

Likewise, the police’s road presence has to be better defined and more case-specific. It is essential to have a unit that can respond to accidents after they happen... but the role of traffic police, in general, cannot be limited to just that. Traffic police have to be present in traffic to be effective. And they must be equipped to respond to events on the road... whether that includes chasing down a speeding vehicle, stopping cars when they are badly driven, and being on the constant lookout for minor and major offences.

This may not always involve erratic driving: the use of mobile phones at the wheel remains widespread in Malta, largely because it goes unnoticed until a tragedy occurs. More regular police patrols on the streets – as opposed to roadblocks, which will not detect most cases – would be a far better deterrent than the simple threat of a fine, which in any case can only be paid if one is caught. It is after all difficult to catch wrongdoers, without making any physical attempt to look out for them.

All this boils down to a much-needed culture change in our national approach to law enforcement. We have in many ways improved our traffic infrastructure over the years: perhaps it is time to revise our traffic policing methods accordingly.