Towards more road safety
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has just launched a much-awaited consultation process with the publication of a white paper entitled ‘Towards More Road Safety’. This consultation process follows closely in the tracks of another – the National Alcohol Policy.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has reiterated the strong position that the government intends taking at upholding road safety through the lowering of alcohol limits and the introduction of penalty points which will now be extended to all driving licences and not just probationary ones.
Representatives from the Malta Insurance Association (MIA) had met the Prime Minister just a few days before the announcement was made by the Justice Minister. A speedy implementation seems to be on the cards after having allowed for a brief period of public consultation which runs until November 15.
The MIA has for a while been advocating the need for better road safety and the effective enforcement of traffic rules. It has also argued for the extension of the penalty points system to all drivers and not just new ones. The MIA had also actively supported the Malta police by donating portable breathalyser kits late in 2015, intended at curbing any abuse that drink-driving brings to the Maltese roads to the detriment of all road users. As an active member of the Malta Road Safety Council, the MIA supports initiatives that lead to increased awareness and ultimately safer roads.
Whenever the MIA called for the introduction of harsher measures in the name of road safety, it did so within a context of better enforcement. Our message has been consistent. While one applauds the initiatives that the authorities are taking, road safety can only improve through proper enforcement of the same legislation introduced.
This is where our weaknesses surface – we are extremely good at legislating but weak at enforcing the rules.
True to the word, apart from ‘eyes on the road’ to avoid distractions while driving, we also need eyes on the road to supervise and enforce the rules. Only through a combination of strict enforcement and tougher sanctions could we start to see an improvement in road safety statistics.
The changes envisaged probably recognise such weaknesses in enforcement. Roping in the wardens for such enforcement is certainly considered as a step in the right direction. However, applying breathalyser tests isby no means a straightforward thing to do.
Most legislation including the Maltese one refers to a degree of ‘suspicion’ that needs to be present before a test is applied.
So apart from having thenecessary kits and equipment available, wardens need to be trained to handle such situations and apply such tests where the need arises.
However, the MIA goes beyond this. Breathalyser tests should not be limited to the presence of suspicion by the enforcement officer. The MIA advocates that such tests should be applied in all serious accidents and where injuries, or worse still, fatalities occur as a result of a traffic accident.
Maltese legislation already caters for such eventualities through article 15C (Chapter 65 – Traffic Regulation Ordinance), which outlines four instances where a police officer may require that a person is to provide a specimen breath for a breath test if it is reasonably suspected that (sub-clause C) “the person committed an offence against the provisions of the ordinance” and (sub-clause D) the motor vehicle driven by the person “...was involved in an accident”.
Similar provisions exist in Irish law, except that here certainty prevails in that the person in charge of the vehicle is to provide a specimen of his or her breath (Road Traffic Act, Section 9). If driving under the influence of alcohol is an offence, unless such an offence is recorded through a breathalyser test, an intoxicated individual involved in an accident could simply walk away.
This may involve a culture change, however, as the events that have unfolded recently prove, the authorities are committed to change and so we should avoid half-baked changes as much as possible and equip the police with the necessary resources and the certainty at law that is required to enforce the rules.
While the MIA welcomes the implementation of a penalty points system, the longer-term implications need to be considered too. One very important implication is the potential increase of unlicensed drivers on our roads, possibly as a result of licence suspension or revocation.
While local legislation guarantees insurance compensation to injured parties even if such reckless drivers cause damage or injury to third parties, it goes without saying that such irresponsible individuals resorted to driving in complete defiance of the law.
Tougher sanctions, which have to include imprisonment, should be meted out to such individuals who commit such serious offences.
Insurers need to be able to verify the driving licence status of an individual in an efficient manner to be able to play their part in better enforcement. Providing insurance cover to a licensed motorist is a very different state of play to providing insurance cover to an unlicensed motorist.
Insurers therefore need to be given access to the driving licence records to be able to verify the licence status and be aware of any points that have been accumulated. This is common practice in many EU countries including the UK.
Insurance is about the pricing of risk and insurers need to be able to differentiate between high- and low-risk drivers and price risks accordingly. Unless risky drivers are charged higher premiums, a careful driver would, as the situation is today, continue to subsidise reckless drivers. Premium differentiation is another important deterrent against reckless drivers.
Finally, the introduction of such measures should not be targeted solely at Maltese drivers. Foreign drivers have now become a regular sight on Maltese roads. Maltese authorities should therefore engage with their foreign counterparts and exchange information of any offences that foreign drivers incur while driving here in Malta.
The deterrent should apply equally to all drivers irrespective of their nationality and/or country of origin.
The MIA augurs that this White Paper is only the beginning of what it considers to be a long process.
The use of mobile phones, running amber and red lights at traffic lights, drink-driving, overspeeding, non-observance of the rules such as stop or give-way signs and road markings have unfortunately become regular occurrences on Maltese roads, to the extent that most of us are prepared to turn a blind eye or walk away.
The change in culture that is required is an understanding that indifference does not pay.
As road users, we cannot expect everybody else to change but every one of us can and should contribute in some way or another to making our roads a safer place to drive.
Adrian Galea is director general of the Malta Insurance Association.