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When smoke gets in your eyes

Every road user in Malta must be aware of the excessive smoke emissions from cars that are either poorly maintained or very old. Many are rightfully concerned about the health hazard this avoidable pollution brings about, especially for children. No wonder the incidence of asthma in this country is high and this is partly due to excessive exhaust fumes by the multitude of cars on our roads.

In 2005, a laudable scheme was introduced to encourage people to report vehicles that in their opinion were emitting too much smoke. One merely had to send an SMS with the details of the registration number of the vehicle emitting excessive smoke. Many appreciated the fact they were being empowered by the transport authorities to bring about some much-needed discipline on our roads. In the first year of the scheme, the public submitted 50,000 reports.

But Malta’s seemingly eternal problem of inability to enforce perfectly sensible regulations soon became evident. In 2008, the Auditor General revealed that 70,000 reports had not been followed up. Understandably, when this fact was published, the number of complaints declined. Many lost confidence in the authorities’ ability to deliver on their promises of enforcement.

Today, the emission alert scheme has become even more ineffective. The Transport Malta 2016 annual report shows that, in that year, over 16,000 text messages were received but only 416 vehicles were called for testing and just 57 of them failed. So, on average, for every 40 SMSs sent to the transport authorities only one car is called for inspection.

There are many theories behind this apparent inability to exercise a good degree of discipline to make the use of roads safer and less stressful for motorists and other users. Some attribute this failure to insufficient resources to follow up on people’s complaints about abuse. If this is the case, why introduce a scheme that depends on many people’s involvement when it is clear that effective follow-up action may not be possible?

Others take a more fatalistic view and argue we have a cultural problem common to many other Mediterranean countries that believe in laissez-faire and resent being told what to do by the authorities. If this is indeed the case, it goes beyond management incompetence in implementing a simple process to check abuse by drivers of vehicles that emit excessive smoke.

Many tend to favour the theory that successive administrations lacked the political will to enforce discipline lest they ruffle the feathers of offenders who have a powerful weapon in the form of a vote in political elections. This consideration would indeed be a sad reflection of the lack of moral leadership that many believe is affecting our political class in many spheres of life.

If the political will to reduce the incidence of excessive air pollution by cars is not just a pious intention, then the government might want to consider entrusting anti-pollution regulation enforcement to a private company that is given clear terms of reference that are strict but fair for drivers. Some form of financial incentive might help too.

The quality of the air we breathe is a serious health issue. Today, many have to rely on nature to blow away the smoke from their eyes and lungs.

Sensible regulation is already in place. Enforcement, as usual, is, at best, ineffective.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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