A significant number of Maltese drivers feel free, in their various ways, to operate to a totally different set of rules from the rest of us, and indeed from the rest of Europe, when they get behind the wheels of their car. No respect for the rules of the road, no courtesy or consideration for other road-users. And lacking the self-discipline to control their impatience, in a country with about 250,000 licensed drivers crowded into an area of just 316 square kilometres, it is little wonder that driving has become such a curse.
The situation is largely of Malta’s own making. Many drivers in Malta operate to a different highway code. For example, the first person to arrive at a roundabout or junction, of whatever nature, has priority. The existence of “Stop” or “Give Way” signs is of no significance. Overtaking is permitted in all possible circumstances, even when the width of the road is clearly insufficient for two vehicles to pass. It is normal for up to three vehicles to cross traffic lights after the lights have changed to red.
The use of traffic indicators is largely ignored. The draping of the right arm over the driver’s door is not a hand signal, but merely indicates the mobile phone is not in use. There is no restriction on the use of a phone while driving. It is acceptable to drive on dual carriageways at 30kph in the outside lane or, if preferred, straddling both lanes.
Parking is allowed in any situation – on pedestrian crossings, at bus stops, on double yellow lines, and anywhere in the shade. The only major exception is that of parking outside a so-called “garage”. To do so will result in the parked vehicle suffering extensive damage to the bodywork. White taxis and red minibuses are exempt from obeying speed limits, and every other aspect of civilised behaviour.
Construction industry trucks have permanent right of way over all other vehicles and are exempt from all safety regulations, including all anti-pollution vehicle emissions testing. No form of front or rear lighting is required on trucks at night.
To show courtesy is a sign of weakness. Never acknowledge another driver who gives way. Keep looking straight ahead. There is no requirement to take notice of cyclists. Knocking a cyclist off his bike and severely injuring him is always the fault of the cyclist.
I obviously exaggerate for effect – but not much. Driving in Malta is all too frequently an abysmal experience. There are too many cars, and the roads, which were mostly built for the horse and cart, are simply not designed or capable of coping with today’s weight of traffic. Add to this the culture of Maltese impatience, discourtesy, selfishness and needy sense of entitlement and you have a combustible recipe for nasty and dangerous behaviour on the road unlike anything to be found elsewhere in Europe.
Traffic police are mostly notable by their absence. Traffic wardens occasionally make an appearance, but they are not there in sufficient numbers to compensate for the lack of police and are largely ineffect-ual. Unless there is a concerted and regular effort by the police force to penalise driving misdemeanors through a system of fines frequently administered, the Maltese driver will continue to flout the law.
Better road discipline and behaviour has to be learnt the hard way through strict enforcement of the law. The Police Commissioner’s standard excuse that he hasn’t got enough officers to do the job is no longer acceptable. He must be ordered to re-prioritise his resources to deal with this issue more effectively than he has done so far.
In fairness to the Maltese driver, the road infrastructure is appalling and this exacerbates the situation. While there are now a number of first class new roads, they are few and far between by comparison with the total road network of over 2,000 kilometres. The majority of Maltese roads remain badly designed and laid out, badly marked (the white paint fades within a fortnight of its application – why?).
They spell danger for ill-disciplined, discourteous and impatient drivers. Transport Malta must place far greater emphasis on improving major junctions and danger spots, the removal of blind spots and the introduction of clearer, longer lasting road markings (why can’t Malta use the same rubber paint as the rest of Europe?).
The overall level of new driver training and testing must be improved, with particular emphasis on a better assessment strategy for driving instructors. This should include continuous personal development for instructors and examiners designed to produce safe and courteous drivers for life, and not simply drivers capable only of getting their car into gear and passing their driving test. Instructors themselves need to know how to teach – including inculcating the need for courtesy and consideration for other drivers – not simply put learners behind the wheel without giving them basic information about anticipating possible hazards.
As to lack of courtesy, this is the fundamental curse of Maltese driving. It is, regrettably, an ingrained cultural trait which must be changed through greater emphasis in our schools and in the media – especially through television – on the habits of consideration and courtesy in the way we conduct ourselves.
The Maltese are a naturally friendly people. But they are not always a courteous people. The difference is that friendliness is in the Maltese DNA, but courtesy has to be learnt. It is learnt at school and, most importantly, at home. It is a part of the education of a people, in the widest definition of the word ‘education’, meaning a preparation for life. The lack of courtesy and good manners in Maltese public behaviour, which sees its incarnation in its driving habits, is often shocking.
The Maltese are a naturally friendly people. But they are not always a courteous people
When EU-wide statistics are published, it is noteworthy that the three countries with the safest roads in Europe are Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, in that order. What marks out these countries when one drives in them is the courtesy displayed by drivers. The Swedes, British and Dutch are naturally courteous people. When you are next there observe how there is a palpable consideration for the feelings of others – no barging, no pushing forward to the head of the queue, no shouting.
Drive anywhere in Malta and the lack of courtesy on the roads is embarrassing. Drivers rarely signal. They drive in the wrong lane. They cut in haphazardly without warning. They tail-gate. Lights that should be dipped are on full beam. They stop in the middle of the road to have a chat. Consideration for other road-users is notable by its absence. The need to inculcate a culture of greater courtesy, especially in driving, is now overdue.
The driver is the first link in the safety chain on the road, and the one most prone to human error. The effectiveness of road safety depends ultimately on the user’s behaviour. If this is not disciplined, courteous and technically skilful, the curse that is the current dangerous and depressing experience of most drivers on the Maltese roads will persist. Greater driver education, training and police enforcement are essential.