Insurers, a judge and a minister call for random breathalyser tests to curb drink driving

As things stand police can only administer a test if they have a reasonable suspicion that a driver is over the legal alcohol limit

Several speakers at a conference on drunk driving have called for the introduction of random breathalyser tests
Several speakers at a conference on drunk driving have called for the introduction of random breathalyser tests

The police should be able to administer random breathalyser tests to drivers, without the need for there to be a reasonable suspicion that a driver is over the limit, the Malta Insurance Association said on Friday.

Enforcement officers should be empowered through a change in legislation in order to clamp down on drunk driving, the association has proposed.

MIA president Catherine Calleja, addressing a conference on drunk driving organised by the association, pointed to the fact that road fatalities in Malta were 5% higher than the EU average with drunk driving remaining the highest cause of road deaths.

“We want to see the empowerment of the police force to test for drink and drugs at random,” Calleja said.

“We were bewildered that 558 motorists were stopped last New Year’s eve and only three were found to be over the alcohol limit. Similarly, on Christmas eve, over 700 were stopped. None was found beyond the limit," she said.

The total number of accidents over a one-year period whose victims were submitted to a breathalyser test was just 3%, she added.

“Are we not as civilised as our European neighbours? Once the law is enacted, together with an educational campaign, as we saw with smoking in public places, people will start adapting to the new rules.”

As it stands, she said, random breathalyser tests were allowed in all EU countries apart from Malta, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Drunk drivers getting off on a technicality 

Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera said she was regularly faced with acquittals for drinking and driving due to technicalities.

“The technicalities are various, from errors in registration numbers, breathalyser tests not properly compiled, police documents are incomplete, and not enough evidence to prosecute,” she said.

Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera said that police needed to be able to administer the test without a reasonable suspicion
Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera said that police needed to be able to administer the test without a reasonable suspicion

She added that there was, in fact, a misconception that the police don’t do their jobs in this regard. As a member of the judiciary for over 23 years, Scerri Herrera said she used to see a minimum of 150 traffic cases and 40 collision sittings every week. 

“The problem is that the police can only ask for a breath test based on a reasonable suspicion. They can administer a test if the officers have a reasonable suspicion that alcohol is in the body, that a person has broken one or more traffic regulations, such as running a red light, driving haphazardly and even parking on double yellow lines or if a person is involved in a traffic accident.”

She lamented however that random breathalyser checks were not a possibility according to Maltese legislation.

“With thousands of collisions a year, I think this warrants more breath tests throughout the year. Allowing community officers to ask for a breathalyser test, for example, is a good proposal because as we all know there are more community officers on the road than there are police officers,” she said.

Culture of nonchalance needs to be addressed

Transport Minister Ian Borg said that Malta has a prevalent culture of nonchalance when it comes to drink driving, adding that a collective effort was necessary to change this.

“Let’s admit it, despite enforcement, you can’t expect to see officials enforcing at every private, social activity. So this has to start with whoever has a driving license. Most of us don’t refuse a drink on Sunday.”

Borg said that security on the roads is a priority for the Maltese government but that this was a collective responsibility. “We can’t place the weight of this on just a single person’s shoulder.”

The minister said that the drink-driving Maltese culture could be clearly gleaned from the fact that people reacted with disbelief at the news that 190 licenses had been revoked.

“We expect there to be much more. We expect that 190 licenses being rescinded for breach of traffic regulations is not enough because we constantly expect everyone to breach the traffic regulations. The statistic of 190 revocations of driving licenses is worrying to me. Imagine how many contraventions were breached in the run-up to this,” he said.

Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon said the country also needed to work to reduce adoloscent drinking
Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon said the country also needed to work to reduce adoloscent drinking

He added that the government hadn’t done any political calculations when introducing the penalty points scheme and that this was just one in a string of required deterrents.

Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon insisted the topic was one that needed to be discussed all year round and not only during the holiday season.

He said that in addition to reducing the legal alcohol limit for one to drive, it was also important to reduce adolescent drinking in general. “Restraining alcohol use when young encourages control in adulthood. We take it as a given that teens drink, and we tend not to make a fuss about it.”

He too urged for the introduction of random breathalyser tests.

“We have the best laws, an excellent judiciary and good lawyers but we tend to lack enforcement,” Falzon said. “Breathalyser tests should become obligatory when there is serious injury involved. Police officers should also make use of random breathalyser tests as deterrents to ensure adhesion to the law.”

Driving under the influence of drugs also becoming an issue

Frank Mutze, Policy Officer at the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) said that the years between 2014 and 2018 were bad years for road safety in the European Union.

He said 25,100 people died in road traffic incidents in 2018 alone in the European Union, with a total of 135,000 road injuries registered.

“Most of these deaths were caused by alcohol use. In fact, 80% of them could have been prevented if motorists didn’t drink and drive,” Mutze said.

He said that drug driving was also on the increase and that 1.9% were driving under the influence of illicit drugs. Mutze said 22% had admitted to driving under the influence of medication and 11% saying they had driven under the influence of illicit drugs at least once in the last year. The ETSC is an NGO and is responsible for compiling the Road Safety Performance Index.

The MIA agreed that drug use has become a major risk factor in driving incidents.

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