Someone recently got a fine for leaving their car window open, generating a flurry of social media comments – but it is actually an offence, one of many that are either overlooked or misunderstood by drivers.
And in some cases with good reason: the law is not always very clear.
Leaving a window open is an offence because it falls under “leaving a vehicle unattended”, as that invites crime, said the director of operations of the Local Enforcement System Agency, Elizabeth Vassallo.
“It makes it easier for someone to steal the car or to throw a cigarette butt inside it, for example,” she said.
But what about a driver who leaves their windows open a few centimetres for ventilation in the heat?
“We don’t usually give tickets for that,” she stressed, acknowledging that the law, however, does not go into these specifics.
And what about convertibles which have their roof down when parked?
“We don’t fine convertible owners as a matter of course. However, both wardens and police encourage them to close the car for safety when parked. This is an insurance issue,” she pointed out.
“You have to understand that we come across people who actually leave their car running, with the keys in, so that they can keep the air-conditioning going while they pop into a shop,” she said.
Parking causes no end of debates on social media, and again, the law has not always kept up with the developments. For example, a motorcycle can park in a normal parking bay no matter how inefficient a use of that space it is. But a small car, like a Smart, cannot park in a motorcycle bay, even though it fits the space quite snugly.
And what about those white parking bays? Are they guidelines, or can you be fined for straddling more than one space?
“They are guidelines,” she confirmed, “so we would not give contraventions for them. But they are there for a very good reason and should be respected.”
Being in full control of the vehicle is another favourite social media target, but again, Ms Vassallo explained it is all about safety: if a driver has not got both hands available, then he is a danger to himself and to others. And yes, that includes eating a sausage roll, changing a CD and lighting up a cigarette, all of which you can be pulled over for.
Wardens are public officials and they must be respected as such. We have had to take people to court for threatening them
She also warned about those who have an expired licence: they are given 48 hours in which to present it, but that does not mean a frantic trip to Transport Malta to renew it before the time is up. The time window is there for those who genuinely forget to affix the new sticker to their windscreen. They will be fined if the licence was issued after they were stopped.
The same applies for being in possession of a valid driving licence.
There are some contraventions that Ms Vassallo would like to clamp down on in an attempt to deter wrongdoing: running red lights and using the priority lane.
The former is notoriously difficult to enforce, as it very often comes down to the warden’s word against that of the driver.
“It’s very subjective. But Lesa is discussing the possibility with Transport Malta of installing cameras,” she added.
Priority lanes are also often abused, but enforcement comes with its own problems: it is hard to pull an offender over without stopping the flow of traffic completely. In this case, she explained, the use of cameras is hindered by the fact that car-poolers can legitimately use the lane, for example.
There are other contraventions which justify debate. For example, you can import a car with tinted windows and get away with it, but you can’t tint the windows of a car you have bought here (unless you have a medical condition that precludes normal windows).
Some contraventions tend to affect some specific road-users more than others. For example, trucks driving out of dusty quarries are supposed to wash down their licence plates so that they are visible, Ms Vassallo pointed out. And commercial vehicles are supposed to carry fire extinguishers, which Lesa is stressing during outreach meetings with the GRTU, salesmen and importers.
“And while we are there, we try to remind them about double parking and the proper use of loading bays,” she said.
“The education campaign seems to be working. The numbers have been doing down, and we had no contraventions about fire extinguishers in June,” she said.
There was one last contravention which she wanted to point out: respecting the orders of wardens.
“It is shocking that there are people who would heed the instructions of a policeman but who would ignore a warden. We actually have cases of people ignoring wardens who were flagging them down – often because they were not wearing seat belts or were on their phones.
“Wardens are public officials and they must be respected as such. We have had to take people to court for threatening them.”
Are all wardens beyond reproach, however? Ms Vassallo, who spent 12 years working on the administrative side of the tribunals, declined to comment on the current system – since 2000, G4S employs the wardens and Lesa, set up in 2015, has no jurisdiction over their discipline. However, in January 2018, the reform of the local enforcement system will be in place, giving Lesa much more control.
“We also believe that it will be more cost-effective, and I know exactly how I would use that money,” she added. “At the moment, there are only an average of 60 wardens on duty on the roads on any particular day (not counting those for deviations, cranes and so on). Ideally, we would have another 40 to really be able to enforce the law and have enough of a presence to be a deterrent.”
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