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We are all pedestrians - Suzanne Maas, Carlos Cañas Sanz and Maria Attard

Following the publication of a news article calling for jaywalking to be made illegal (November 7) we would like to offer our perspective on improving road safety in Malta.

The Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta conducts research related to sustainability, including initiatives to enhance the quality of life in the Maltese islands. 

A large part of our research efforts is looking into sustainable mobility, including the role of public transport and active transport, such as walking and cycling.

We are all pedestrians and so are our parents, children and other loved ones. Even if we drive a car on a daily basis, we still find ourselves walking from our parking spot to our place of work or study, from our home to the shop around the corner, or to the bus stop in our locality.

The majority of road accident risks are well known and are preventable. The 2014 Road Safety Strategy for Malta identified “driving under the influence of alcohol, non-use of seat belts, excessive speeding, as well as disregard of pedestrians and cyclists” as main contributors to road accidents, while stressing that all road-users have a responsibility to contribute to the reduction of risks on the road.

We fully agree that all road-users, including pedestrians, have a responsibility in creating safe roads, but these responsibilities go hand in hand with rights for the same road-users.

Penalisation of jaywalking can have a place as a legal tool to deter illegal and irresponsible behaviour on the part of pedestrians, but only in a comprehensive framework that fully addresses the needs of pedestrians first, by ensuring access to safe and comfortable infrastructure, combined with education for all road-users and ongoing enforcement.

In Malta, pedestrian infrastructure is often ill-designed, unsafe, obstructed or removed to facilitate other uses such as car parking. This is also identified in the 2016 Transport Master Plan.

Instead of penalising those road-users that are most vulnerable, countries such as Germany and the Netherlands (with among the lowest per capita rates of pedestrian fatalities in the EU), as well as the majority of other European countries, have adopted a system of presumed liability.

Pedestrian infrastructure is often ill-designed, unsafe, obstructed or removed to facilitate other uses such as car parking

Presumed liability puts the onus on drivers to take responsibility to drive in a way that minimizes the risk of injury for pedestrians and cyclists in order to create a road environment in which road users look out for one another in an attempt to minimise the risk of accidents. Concerns about traffic and road safety are the main reasons why parents will not allow their children to play outside alone, or walk or cycle to school, therewith further increasing the dependency on the private car.

In the report ‘Making Walking and Cycling on European Roads Safer’, the European Transport Safety Council recommends EU member states to encourage the creation of speed limit zones of maximum 30km/h in areas used by pedestrians and cyclists, and to adopt a transport policy hierarchy based on safety, vulnerability and sustainability: prioritising walking, cycling and public transport over private car use.

Planning for and promoting walking and cycling has the potential to also address other societal challenges, and create a safer and more pleasant environment.

In their article ‘Urban design, transport and health’ in the medical journal The Lancet, Giles-Corti et al. (2016) stress that in the 21st century, well-planned cities have the potential to reduce road accidents, non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer) and noise and air pollution, by reducing car dependency and promoting walking and cycling by ensuring they are “safe, comfortable and desirable”.

In their Transport Master Plan, Transport Malta highlight that the average journey length by car is only 5.5km, indicating that around half the trips are well within a distance that lends itself well for journeys made by active and/or public transport.

If we want to get serious about road safety locally, we need to learn how to share the road safely and promote sustainable mobility modes, we need to look at the evidence: from proven successful interventions abroad to getting a better understanding of the causes of road accidents locally, and from thereon, the development of suitable strategies to address these.

Before penalising pedestrians and further disincentivising walking, let us see if there are better solutions out there.

Suzanne Maas is currently conducting doctoral research on cycling, Carlos Cañas Sanz is conducting doctoral research work on walkability, Professor Maria Attard is Head of Geography and Director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development, all at the University of Malta.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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