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Drivers do not fear that they will be caught breaking the rules – Doctors for Road Safety

Julian Bonnici Monday, 23 April 2018, 09:40 Last update: about 7 years ago

The images of the tragic accident involving an open-top bus in Zurrieq remains fresh in the public conscience, however, it is doctors who witness firsthand the devastating effects that traffic accidents have on individuals and their families. With nearly 50 deaths since the start of 2016 coupled with a rising number of accidents, a new NGO entitled Doctors for Road Safety has emerged. Julian Bonnici met with its President, Dr Ray Gatt, an orthopaedic surgeon, to dig deeper into the issue.

Looking at figures provided by the Police it appears that even though there has been a spike over the last two years, the number of fatalities has been relatively consistent, with an average of 16 deaths per year. Why do you think that is?

There are a number of reasons for that. We are on the shop floor and while we do not see the fatalities, we witness major grievous injuries on a regular basis, and this does not even include slight injuries. It is like a plague.

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For example, with the accident involving the double-decker bus, there were two fatalities, but we also had quadriplegic cases, we had two children with head injuries, and others with fractures. These are all major traumas.

I still believe that no one can pinpoint one specific factor, but one of the reasons is that we simply do not obey the traffic code here in Malta. I don’t think anyone of us obeys it. For instance, if there is a ‘STOP’ sign on the road, it means stop. They have written that word specifically and it does not mean slow down have a look around and continue on. I also think this epidemic use of mobile phones while driving is contributing factor.

 

So was the NGO born out of the frustration of seeing these accidents on a daily basis with little change?

I’ve been a doctor for the past thirty-five years. I’ve worked as an orthopaedic surgeon, I’ve worked in casualty, I’ve seen it all. People may ask why now, and I can’t answer that, but six months ago I received a call asking me to help with this initiative. I realised that I had to stand up and do something about so I accepted immediately. I’m in it wholeheartedly.

People sometimes wait for changes to happen. There needs to be something structured and that’s why we are happy that a road strategy was implemented in 2014 and that a road safety council was set up. We were awaiting changes, but as you can see in the figures and graphs, nothing has actually happened. That’s not to say that it is the fault of anyone, but when changes don’t happen, we need to find solutions, something which I believe doctors are intrinsically trained to do.

The NGO has been growing over a number of years in our minds, but we were not sure where to put our focus. We took this idea of placing doctors at the centre, so doctors can teach other doctors and then the general public about road safety. With regards to doctors, we need to educate ourselves in the event that we encounter a traffic accident. Being a doctor does not mean that you can just stop on the roadside and handle a major accident.

 

And what are the long-term goals for the NGO?

Zero mortality. Grievous injuries will remain, but that is our aim. One death is one death too much. Whether we reach that goal is another thing entirely.

 

Is there one aspect of road safety which can be improved within a year or in the short-term?

In my mind, there are three headings to road safety. The first is education, which is vital. The second is the actual infrastructure of the roads that we use, their signage, or any dangerous factors, as we’ve seen with trees recently. If these two fail, obviously the third that needs to be focused on enforcement. In our opinion, there are three groups of drivers in Malta. First, we have the flag bearers, who are the group that is convinced to drive safely. Then there is a group, who with a bit of education, will listen and make their way to the first group. The third is the do-whatever-you-like-group, who no matter how much you try, they will remain the same. Here, maybe, is where we should start using the short end of the stick with strict enforcement. You can try to educate everyone, but there are those who are simply beyond that.

 

There are no statistics available when it comes to drink-driving accidents. From your first-hand experience, is the issue still a major concern?

If you look at last December’s statistics when no one was charged with drink-driving, it’s positive. But I have issues with the way the tests were conducted, with only 11 out of 1832 drivers who were stopped because they showed behavioural indicators, actually being breathalysed. So it may not tell the whole story. Apart from drink driving, a real issue is drug driving, but unfortunately, I do not know how enforcement officers will be able to check for this.

 

I think it is fair to say that drink-driving is the norm in Malta. What can realistically be done to curb this kind of behaviour?

You can educate, but I don’t think there is a short-term solution except putting a traffic warden or police officer outside every entertainment venue and checking everyone, which is impossible. It all falls down to education and driver’s responsibility.

One also needs to look at the system in place, and we are examining it. We are not experts on the matter, but it seems that people are frustrated that the system currently in place can be abused. If you look at the law, for example, if someone cannot produce a decent breath, then they are allowed not to breathalysed, which in turn can be brought in as a line of defence and they can be let off the hook. We know the law has been revised downwards the allowable levels of alcohol to EU levels (0.58), which is a positive, but I think it has to be looked at again to make sure that it is actually a deterrent and not something on paper which is weaker when it comes to practice.

As the figures that were published by your newsroom show, drink-driving is underreported. It has to be made clear that anyone under the influence has no place on the road. A culture shift does need to take place, as generally we cross the line when it comes to a number of regulations. I believe that if our roads and enforcement were a clear representation of the rules, then it would begin to affect other parts of driving culture. At the end of the day, we spend most of our lives on the roads and we want to feel safe as citizens and family members.

To be frank, let’s not pretend that Malta is in isolation when it comes to drink-driving, but we have to look at our own situation. However, when you see videos of a car on three wheels and a trolley on the main road, or of others driving dangerously, it shows that the driver knows that he or she will not be caught, and even if they are, they are usually let off the hook in some way or another. When you see cars spontaneously going into poles without provocation, what does that tell you?  Why are these head-on collisions occurring?

Unfortunately, in Malta when there is a fatality, there is outrage and then it dies, and the same thing happens when the next fatality occurs.

I do believe that we do have safe roads, but on some roads, we get recurrent problems like with the coast road and motorcyclists, who do abuse too. However, we need to start being proactive by analysing the situations and learning how to prevent them.

 

In Malta, it appears that we have pretty strict driving tests and follow so many rules. Why does this change the second a driver gets their license?

I think the driving test is pretty tough given that most people fail their first time, so I do not know the answer to that. It appears that once people pass they get institutionalised on Maltese roads. We call it a common understanding. A common understanding of the way you have to drive in Malta, and in a sense this mentality of driving however you like and not getting caught. 

We need to focus on getting road safety on the national agenda. Most surveys show that traffic and congestion are always at the top of people’s concerns, yet safety is never mentioned.

 

And have you had any communication with the ministry?

Not yet, we’ve only just started and we are looking to build up our portfolio. This is not something that happens overnight. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health Chris Fearne did attend our initial launch when we launched a pledge campaign, and he was onboard, which is positive. But we are yet to meet with the policymakers and the other stakeholders.

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