Scooters should be encouraged, not penalised

The proposed regulations are the wrong response to a new way of travelling that is – at the end of the day - less harmful to people, towns, villages, and the planet

There is an old joke about traffic in Malta, along the lines that the larger and more powerful the vehicle, the more automatic its right-of-way.

Like most cultural stereotypes, it has a basis in truth: almost every motorist on the road will sooner or later experience having had to give way to a larger vehicle which simply forced its way forward through sheer horse-power alone.

Like the potholes on our road – or our reputation for not using indicators when turning – this perception has become part of an entire local mythology about driving in Malta.

Unfortunately, it also coincides with other indications of a ‘might-is-right’ culture… for instance, in the planning sector: where the larger environmental offences always seem to get let off lightly, while the authorities tend to come down heavily on lesser, minor infringements.

Nonetheless, it is a cultural stereotype, nothing more.  So it was surprising to see the Transport Ministry, of all entities, appearing to cement that perception… by proposing to over-regulate the smallest and least polluting means of vehicular traffic available – the humble electric scooter – while resisting calls for a drastic revision of regulations for private cars.

The number of electric scooters on Maltese roads has been steadily increasing in recent months: and while it is true that some form of regulation is needed – Minister Ian Borg has a point, when he argues that: “I cannot understand how anyone going at 40km/hr can expect not to be equipped with basics like lights, for example” – it is also a fact that the same government is committed to encouraging alternative modes of transport.

Effectively, however, its plans for the regulation of micro-vehicles like skateboards and scooters go beyond safety issues such as lights or helmets. Under the proposed regulations, drivers of electric scooters will also require a driver’s licence and insurance, both if the scooter is owned individually or part of a sharing scheme.

Moreover, there will also be a one-time registration fee for scooters, set at €11.65, and an annual license fee of €25.

Scooters must also be equipped with headlights and taillights, with a maximum speed at 10km/hr in pedestrian areas and 20km/hr on other roads. They will not be permitted under tunnels, underpasses or arterial roads and may only be used on roads designated as cycle routes by the government.

At this point, government may as well go one step further and simply ban scooters from Maltese roads altogether. For while imposing a speed limit on electric scooters is understandable… the requirements of a driving licence and insurance cover – not to mention the annual road licence fees - are clearly excessive.

It must be remembered that people choosing alternatives to cars also include teenagers too young for a driver’s licence. If the government insists on licences, or courses which need to be taken, then it should be looking at countries such as Italy, which have special licences for ‘motorini’ that can acquired at 16: thus not excluding the 16-17 age bracket, which is the likeliest to be riding scooters anyway.

Moreover, as has been time and again confirmed, the daily increase in cars on the road has become utterly unsustainable. Because of this, we should be taking measures to facilitate alternative means of community transport, rather than creating unnecessary hurdles.

The proposed tax, for example, is also excessive. If electric cars are exempt from Annual Circulation tax for five years - and after that, charged only €10 per year - and if the annual tax for petrol-powered motorcycles up to 125cc is likewise €10 per year… how can the government charge €25 for an electric kick-scooter, which not only takes up less space on the road, but has a far less powerful motor than the previous two?

The same could be said for the proposed fines. Riding a scooter on arterial roads entails a whopping €200 fine… rising to €500 for driving through underpasses.

For cars, driving the wrong way will incur a fine of merely €23, while over-speeding fines start at €35. If the government wishes to impose such heavy fines on scooters, then clearly it needs to reassess the fines for car users as well.

Another problem is the proposed restriction to cycle-lanes. Road widening exercises in such as in areas as San Gwann and Swieqi  - where certain roads have doubled their original width – have not seen fit to introduce proper cycle lanes, in order to prioritise the safety of cycle and scooter users.

Government cannot, on the one hand, ‘forget’ to include cycle lanes in its plans… and then insist that scooters can only be driven on non-existent (or dysfunctional) cycle lanes.

But the bottom line is that, if the government really wants to get people to stop using cars, its needs to prioritise making our roads safer for non-car users… rather than always putting car users first.

The proposed regulations are the wrong response to a new way of travelling that is – at the end of the day - less harmful to people, towns, villages, and the planet. It is something that should be encouraged and incentivised…. not the other way round.