Are road accidents statistics in Malta being thoroughly documented, evaluated and analysed? A glaring example of the superficiality of road accident data collection in Malta was demonstrated when our country could not supply Eurostat with the number of road fatalities related to the consumption of alcohol. Recent media hype that Malta has the lowest traffic fatalities in the EU is misleading. Rejoicing that road fatalities in 2004 have decreased when compared to the figures from 1990 is premature. There is in fact no clear improvement in the Maltese road fatality rate per million of population.

Further, it is not possible to compare Maltese road fatalities directly with those of large European countries because of our rather low vehicle-kilometre values.

Traffic incidents reported by the media often include the phrase "the driver lost control of his vehicle". Many would presume that the driver was overspeeding. Let me first put speed into perspective. Driving at 35 km/h into a concrete wall without a seatbelt, airbag or any attempt at taking evasive postures, will lead to serious injury to, or death of the occupants.

When one considers the speed of transit on European highways and the massive number of vehicle-kilometres accumulated, fatalities are relatively contained. Speeds of 250 km/h on a Formula One race track rarely lead to fatalities in spite of occasional spectacular accidents.

The conviction that the causes of road accidents are solely the result of excessive speed is simplistic and serves only to prevent creative traffic management policies that can save lives and prevent injury. The very people who speed indiscriminately and drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs are also less likely to be influenced by advice, advertising or education campaigns.

Vehicle 'handling'

"Inappropriate vehicle handling" is the generic cause of road vehicle accidents. Appropriate vehicle handling, by definition, does not lead to an accident. "Inappropriate" handling refers to a situation where a driver has not evaluated all the factors that are necessary for safe transit at that instant in time and space.

If a speed of 50 km/h were used while travelling - without incident - along a curve in a road, for which the driver has evaluated the capabilities of his vehicle, the environmental conditions prevailing (dry) and the surface condition of the road (good) then this constitutes appropriate handling.

If, on the other hand, the driver has failed to observe that the curve ahead has a wet surface or a sprinkling of gravel from spillage and drives on without taking the necessary corrective changes, the vehicle could slide outwards, off the road. The latter constitutes inappropriate handling. The actual speed is not the cause but a contributing factor in the ensuing incident of the latter scenario.

Factors contributing to traffic accidents can tentatively be classified.

a) Factors directly affecting at least one vehicle in an accident.

Non-tangible factors: Driver's experience and skill in handling the vehicle, sensory capabilities of the driver, mental state, alertness and reflexes of the driver, temporary distractions (mobile phones, ICE controls, roadside distractions), intellectual ability to evaluate driving conditions, traffic regulations and vehicle's limitations, inobservance of traffic signs and right of way, lack of prudence, ignoring safety margins and inappropriate speed.

Tangible factors: apparent, suspect or hidden mechanical inadequacy of the vehicle (tyre/wheel condition, suspension, windscreen clarity, etc.), environmental conditions (dark, low lying frontal sun, wet roads, windscreen condensation) and the road surface's condition, attributes and qualification.

b) Factors not involving a vehicle in an accident. Unfortunately these factors fall into the realms of subjective accounts of the involved parties and witnesses.

Third party: Motor Vehicles. Any factor outlined in (a) above created by an uninvolved third party vehicle, creating a situation that causes the driver of a vehicle involved in the accident to make an evasive manoeuvre amounting to inappropriate handling (e.g., oncoming vehicle on wrong side of the road, headlights not dipped).

Third party: Non-Motor Vehicles. Pedestrians (on foot or pedal-powered vehicles), animal-drawn vehicles, unrestrained animals and inadequate marking or signage indicating danger on the road ahead can create a situation where they force inappropriate handling of a vehicle involved in a road accident.

Collection of data

Personnel chosen to be called to the scene of an accident (wardens, police) should be trained to identify and document technical aspects that have led to the accident. Minor collisions with little material damage to the vehicles may be excluded from a complete evaluation.

On the other hand, even if no one were injured, accidents where serious vehicular damage has occurred, evaluation must be complete since these accidents could potentially have caused injury. In cases when injury has occurred or 'spectacular' accidents have taken place, specialised technical personnel should be on call to evaluate all possible causes that had led to an accident.

Accounts from the involved parties should be taken when factors related to group (b) are claimed, even if unverifiable. The aim is not to establish blame, which is up to the insurance companies and their lawyers. The aim is to gather as much information as possible on the multiple causes leading to an accident, to establish a database, analyse what the commoner causes of the more serious accidents are and to establish strategies to reduce their occurrence. Specialised personnel appointed by the court already conduct on-site enquiries but there should also be a technical evaluation of the accident and tabulation of the findings into a central database.

Data relevant to causes of accidents as outlined in (a) and (b) can be expanded.

Driver experience

Age, duration as licence holder, annual distance driven, whether the driver uses the current vehicle regularly and its power to weight ratio are all factors to take into consideration, apart from the number of passengers/pets in the vehicle - were they all restrained according to recommendations (seat belts, child car seats, etc.)?

Driving has multi-sensory requirements. Vision and hearing are tested once at the time when the driving test is taken and then again over 40 years later. In 40 years, drivers may loose significant visual and hearing functions as well as loosing other sensory inputs necessary for safe driving especially so if driving habits are exercised at the edge of the safety envelope.

The sense of longitudinal, lateral and rotational accelerations may be subdued with age, disease processes and medication. In terms of mental state, some people are confrontational and aggressive in character even when they walk in the street. Imagine what these people's driving behaviour will be like when they sit behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Cross-references to police records of aggressive misconduct has to be part of the data collection in a traffic accident. On the other hand, mental state may be altered by disease, medication, alcohol intake and illegal drug use. This can reduce the concentration necessary to drive in a responsible manner and also may interfere with exercising quick responses in the case of an emergency manoeuvre.

Temporary distractions like use of mobile phones while on the move, using car stereo controls and even looking at a roadside spectacle for an instant can be enough to lead to an accident. These may not be verifiable, especially the first example, as this is an offence.

The driver's intellectual ability to evaluate and identify adverse driving conditions and to match them to the vehicle's capabilities and mechanical state is important. Most experienced drivers literally drive by the seat of their pants.

With time, the driver's brain accumulates a massive amount of subconscious sensory input which allows that driver to handle a vehicle without conscious deliberation. In spite of this ever-improving automation, the driver has to consciously intervene and adjust these automatic brain functions to take account of variations in driving conditions.

(To be concluded)

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