The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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Road deaths: Stop blame mentality, stakeholders need better data to address root of problem – doctor

Marc Galdes Sunday, 20 November 2022, 08:30 Last update: about 19 days ago

So far this year, road deaths have skyrocketed to the record-breaking figure of 24.

Secretary of NGO Doctors for Road Safety (D4RS) Dr Mario Vassallo is asking people to stop the fatalistic approach of “a blame mentality”. Instead, he is asking for better data to determine the root of the problem.

He is calling for all stakeholders involved in road safety to come together and tackle this “mammoth task”.

When Vassallo was asked about the reason why road deaths have skyrocketed, he said that “the real answer is that we really don't know”.

“The first thing that we are committed to is to make sure that as much as possible we gather all the information, all the data and encourage all the stakeholders to investigate and come up with almost scientific answers to exactly that question.”

“Of course, anecdotally we know that the big problems are distraction, alcohol and possibly drugs, especially recreational drugs. We know that enforcement is an issue which needs to be tackled.  But having said that we don't have any hard data with which we can really answer that question.”

The Malta Independent on Sunday conducted an interview with Vassallo to discuss what might be causing all these serious accidents and potential solutions for the future.

 

Reckless drivers

Vassallo was asked whether drivers have a reckless mentality and whether the hot-headedness of some drivers is contributing to a lot more accidents.

He divided drivers on the road in a very arbitrary way, between three different types of drivers.

He said that a third of the drivers are actually quite careful. “It's their character, they obey the law they obey the rules.”

Then he said that probably around 40% of drivers are easily distracted and are always in a hurry. “They have all the pleasures of so-called modern life, where you need instant gratification and you need to get from A to B in like five seconds.”

He said that these are amenable to education, so they are more likely to obey the laws of the road if they are reminded.

Then he said that the rest of the people are drivers who do not mind breaking the rules.

However, he wanted to move aware from this blame mentality where drivers are held accountable but nothing is done beyond that. Drivers should be held accountable but there should also be an interest to see what can be done to prevent this from happening again.

Regarding hot-headedness, he said that this is “perhaps only one facet, possibly even a minor one”.

“At the end of the day when Maltese drivers drive abroad, they actually drive very carefully, so I don't think it is the climate.”

 

Education

When asked about educating drivers and how this could be done better, he stresses the importance of educating people while they are young, especially older teenagers who are about to take up the responsibility of driving or have already begun.

“We need to mention that road traffic injuries and deaths are the number one cause of mortality in the age group of 20-24. Which are young drivers who are starting out to drive.”

“We even go to younger age groups and try to explain what driving is about, the responsibility associated with it. We have programmes like street smart. We even get young children to drive in little cars to try and give them a sense that driving is not all about pleasure, but also about responsibility.”

“Driving is a privilege. People say 'I have a right to drive' but it is actually a privilege. Society is giving you a privilege which comes with a number of duties so there is a set of criteria that you need to satisfy when you are driving, and therefore, that privilege can be withdrawn and should be withdrawn if you do not adhere to those criteria.”

When asked whether campaigns showing shocking images would help, he said that “there is some effect but not a lot, because what happens is people become fatigued, they get used to it”.

He gave the example of the horrible images found on cigarette packets and the terrible videos the media shares of war. People become immune to these things the more they see them. “So on its own, we do not believe that it will make the grade.”

“It is not enough to say that education is important; it is important but together with enforcement, better vehicle safety standards and infrastructure modifications.”

“The objective is not to eliminate crashes, what we want to eliminate eventually, are deaths and grievous injuries. It's got to be a multi-faceted approach and there's no one single item that's going to be a game-changer.”

Recently, Malta was ranked as the cheapest place in Europe to get your driving licence. With that in mind and the Transport Malta bribery licence scandals, he was asked whether there needs to be a complete revamp of the whole system.

“In terms of the technical aspects of driving, I think that Maltese drivers are on par with any other driver. On the other hand, when it comes to inculcating this need to observe rules and to make sure that we drive safely then of course there's a problem there.”

He also brought up the graduating licensing scheme, which is being utilised in some countries. This scheme places strict measures on young drivers such as not being able to drive cars which are very powerful, not being able to drive at night and/or there is absolutely no tolerance for alcohol.

“It's been shown to influence the mentality and culture of young drivers.”

 

Infrastructure

Three people have been hit and killed by a car on Triq Dicembru 13 this year. This raises red flags about the safety of certain roads in Malta and the safety of pedestrians. Out of the 24 road deaths, 13 of these were because pedestrians got hit by a car.

Therefore, Vassallo was asked about how Malta’s infrastructure could be negatively affecting safety for all road users.

“In general the newer roads are much safer.”

“Road safety is being taken very seriously even at the planning stage, like making sure that pedestrians have their own protected lane, including cyclists and other non-vehicle users.”

However, he said that roads can definitely be improved in certain areas.

Infrastructure Malta (IM) has taken the initiative to ask local councils to point out the dangerous areas and come up with solutions to improve roads in their area. Once they do this they can notify IM and it will offer its support to improve the road conditions.

 

Enforcement

When talking about enforcement, he did not believe that enforcement should only be executed as a form of coercion but enforcement should also focus on rewarding drivers.

“The simplest thing would be that you get a smiley on a digital board when you're driving within the speed limit. If you go above it you get an angry face. Of course, the human brain reacts to that. I know it sounds very silly but it’s the simplest thing that you see a smiley and you feel happy.”

“A more tangible example would be if insurance companies monitor your speed and if you drive within speed limits, then you get an ongoing no-claim discount every year. So you know that if you stick to the rules at the end of the year your insurance premium might actually go down rather than up.”

“For minor infringements on a road, the first one you might get a letter explaining what you've done wrong and what you should've done. Or instead of dishing out fines, you can ask people to go to an education event which creates a little bit of inconvenience for the driver but it will also train people and educate them in a specific targeted way.”

“So there are many ways in which you can enforce without being punitive or coercive.”

Prime Minister Robert Abela recently announced that fines for using mobile phones while driving will be increased. Vassallo was asked whether this was enough or whether more needed to be done to improve enforcement on the road.

“That is important and yes, it serves as a deterrent, but there have been studies which show that by paying a fine people almost feel legitimised they're paying their dues but they're so busy, that it is more convenient for them to pay the fine and answer that phone.”

Once again he said that this measure on its own will not be enough, however, “it is a step in the right direction and it is a very valid thing to do”.

When asked about enforcing the use of the breathalyser, he said that “we would really love to see breathalyser tests carried out more frequently”.

“Even after your first drink, there's always going to be an effect on your reaction time and on your perception of distance, etc.”

He mentioned the legal issue that arises with breathalyser tests. He said that because driving under the influence is a criminal offence, then the subject has a right to a lawyer and the police cannot conduct a breathalyser test until a lawyer is present. Therefore, because of the time wasted from when the police stops the driver until the lawyer arrives the breathalyser test will not be reliable.

However, he said that currently there are ongoing discussions to address this issue.

Regarding the legalisation of cannabis, he is worried that people driving under the influence of recreational drugs has increased.

He said that saltatory tests are used to detect whether someone is high, but he is not aware whether these are available in Malta.

He said that he and his council members, because of their experience as front-liners, are aware that driving under the influence of recreational drug use is quite a prevalent issue.

“We know that in places where this has been decriminalised, there was an increase in the rate of road crashes and deaths and injuries, after the decriminalisation of the use of cannabis.”

Overall, he felt that this is another aspect that people need to think about when conducting studies on road safety.

 

Road safety strategy update

Over two weeks ago, Minister Aaron Farrugia announced that a plan to address the number of road fatalities will be announced in the coming days. Since then D4RS held their first conference on 12 November where they invited many road safety stakeholders to discuss the way forward.

“We must thank Minister Farrugia for his interest and support. We met him, he was at the conference and he spoke. He and his staff are very committed to looking at this problem in an objective and scientific way. This is what we are trying to bring to this issue.”

He was adamant that in order to solve this issue it needs the support of all stakeholders.

He gave the example of curing an illness which would need a multi-disciplinary teams’ meeting. “We require your surgeon, your physician, your radiotherapist, your pharmacist and your nurse. It's not a one-man job.”

This is not going to be solved over the next few months.

“The commitment is there, people are listening and we really hope that we have catalysed, we've stimulated this fresh approach which is very different from the traditional fatalistic approach which is unfortunately still very common. We have to take responsibility and stop the blame mentality.”

“The key statement has to be that human life is paramount. That's where I come from, we leave no stone unturned.”

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