Drink-driving has again been brought to the fore in headline news recently. The family of Jessica Tabone, a 22-year-old woman who died in 2015 in a head-on collision with a car driven by an individual under the influence of alcohol, denounced the lack of proportionate severity of the judgment given by the courts.

Even if you read the article, you have probably already forgotten about it and moved on.

It is a common perception that people still continue to drink alcohol and drive. That court judgments do not fulfil the expectations of injured parties or their grieving loved ones is also widespread opinion; that shocking news of terrible and preventable road accidents creates initial outrage and then fizzles into nothing is sadly nothing new.

How big is the problem of ‘driving under the influence of alcohol’ in Malta?

Statistics from the World Health Organization and Eurostat indicate that Malta has moderate consumption levels of alcohol per capita, below the average of EU countries. However, this is not the case for heavy episodic drinking where Malta falls in the highest 30 per cent.

This suggests that, while most of us are not regular drinkers, there are those who do indulge heavily. This is not good news when one realises that at least a proportion of these people return home behind a steering wheel.

In fact, data from roadside police breathalyser testing reveals that more than two-thirds of drivers tested have resulted positive.

However, this is almost certainly the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Maltese law only allows drivers to be tested when there is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ by the police that they were driving under the influence of alcohol.

This obviously places the onus solely on the subjective interpretation of the patrol officer, who has to decide whether to test or not.

It is clear that Malta has to up the game in both legislation and enforcement

It is therefore not surprising that, last year, only 165 roadside breathalyser tests were carried out on our roads. This is equivalent to less than one test per 1,000 inhabitants per year.

Romania is often said to be the worst EU country for road safety, yet it still manages to carry out 80 breathalyser tests per 1,000 inhabitants per year.

Furthermore, of the breathalyser tests carried out in Malta in 2018, more than 20 per cent were undertaken in the Christmas to New Year period. This means that less than three tests per week were carried out on average during the rest of the year.

It is clear that Malta has to up the game in both legislation and enforcement if we are to curb drink-driving. Positive decisions have already been taken: the upper tolerance limits for blood and breath alcohol concentrations have been brought down and those caught driving above these limits now have penalty points taken from their licences.

However, these steps will mean very little without effective enforcement and deterrence.

Malta remains one of the few European countries where the law does not allow random breath testing at the roadside. This eliminates any subjective interpretation by enforcement officers.

Most importantly, it is an effective deterrent. The World Health Organization estimates that random checkpoint breath alcohol testing “can reduce fatal driving crashes by about 20 per cent if they are publicised, highly visible and frequently used”.

As doctors, we witness first-hand the repercussions of drink-driving as well as its devastating consequences on the victims and their loved ones.

Doctors for Road Safety will continue with its mission of advocating and educating about road safety in all its aspects.

It should not take more victims like Jessica, and her devastated family and friends, to motivate decision makers to execute the necessary changes needed to make our roads safer.

Ray Gatt is president of Doctors for Road Safety.

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