Road safety must be top priority

When it comes to road safety, the need for a zero-tolerance approach has to start now. As we were rightly shocked to see on Tuesday, these are matters of life or death

TUESDAY’S incident, in which a police constable was mowed down and nearly killed by a 17-yearold unlicensed driver, has understandably elicited a strong national reaction.

This was no ordinary on-duty accident, as attested by the sheer gravity of the injuries sustained. PC Simon Schembri suffered a collapsed lung and fractures to his pelvis and ribs, and his right arm had to be amputated below the elbow. The officer also suffered severe friction burns from his cheek down to his abdomen from having been dragged for a considerable distance.

Already shocking in itself, the incident has been compounded by various public reactions. The driver himself has since been charged with attempted murder and grievous bodily harm; but significantly, another three people have separately been charged with ‘inciting hatred’ against the police by appearing to applaud the crime in misguided social media comments.

Without entering into the merits of the ongoing court cases, it is clear that this incident has also exposed an underlying contempt (if not downright hatred) for authority among certain people. This is not something we can claim to have been entirely unaware of: but the extent to which it appears to have been taken, in this case, will have understandably come as a shock to many... not least, the serving members of the Malta Police Force themselves.

Be that as it may, one must also be cautious when interpreting such events. Several issues have been mentioned over the past days: one of them is that respect for authority (or rather, the lack thereof) has been building up over the last decade or so. It would seem to older generations that younger people are less observant of societal mores when it comes to police officers or teachers, and that children are less respectful of authority in general than their elders.

In itself, this is not an incorrect observation: but it is nonetheless unwise to extrapolate too much from a single isolated incident, no matter how serious. One cannot gauge the general public’s attitude towards the police from the random comments of individuals here and there... still less from the reckless, impulsive behaviour of a single person. The crime, in itself, must also be viewed in the context of juvenile delinquency in general: a problem that exists, in Malta; but it is not ‘new’, and certainly not in any way attributable to any circumstances unique to this particular country.

Nonetheless, there is a very real perception that authority is systematically undermined locally, and this must be addressed. To this end, we must also decide what type of society they want to live in... and, more pertinently, how much of our own behaviour we should adjust in order to solve the problem.

When it comes to road safety, the need for a zero-tolerance approach has to start now. As we were rightly shocked to see on Tuesday, these are matters of life or death

If Malta is a place where authority is not respected, it is not manifested only among teenagers from troubled backgrounds, or persons with criminal tendencies for whatever reason. Sadly, we must acknowledge that we, the Maltese, are not a disciplined people by nature. Though few of us might take contempt for the authorities to the extent we are talking about here, it must be said that – even from a cursory glance at driving standards in general – vast swathes of the public also bend the rules occasionally, albeit in lesser matters... and that we do have a tendency to grumble and object, when brought to book over our offences.

At the risk of generalising, part of this attitude is also the corollary of the lackadaisical application of penalties for lawbreakers across the board: on environmental crimes, on the lack of respect by the construction industry, or the catering business that is allowed al fresco placements to obstruct pavements; on the lack of laws preventing noise pollution, or the ubiquitous substandard application of health and safety regulations...

All too often, one encounters the attitude that ‘rules and regulations’ are there for other people... or, even worse, ‘to be broken’... and this may in turn be explained by the seeming lack of severe consequences when people are caught breaking the law.

As Doctors For Road Safety accurately put it in a statement, Tuesday’s incident was “reflective of the lack of adequate control over road safety over many years, as evidenced by the worsening fatal, grievous and non-grievous road traffic accident records.”

One is inclined to agree with the argument that “the daily experience of decent road users who observe road traffic regulations is that other road users who decide to break the rules, are doing so with impunity. This same case is a classic example, amongst others documented, that the system has failed to pick up and prevent this incident by a previous offender...”

D4RS argue that a ‘zero fatality rate’ is possible to achieve, and call on the authorities to strongly gear up the action and strengthen control of Maltese roads to this end.

This newspaper certainly agrees that when it comes to road safety, the need for a zero-tolerance approach has to start now. As we were rightly shocked to see on Tuesday, these are matters of life or death: the government should take note of public road safety concerns, and announce what it intends to do about them.