Above: A campaign against drink driving in New Zealand
This article first appeared on Malta Today
Two stories caught my eye on Friday. One was about a man in Bugibba, who just happens to be Serbian, and who was thoroughly fed up of people dumping their rubbish bags on the corner where his apartment block is. So he took it upon himself to wash the pavement clean and stand guard for three nights. Every time he saw someone coming to leave their rubbish there, he told them, politely but firmly, to take their bag back and place it outside their own home instead.
It seems to have worked, so much so that even the local council praised him for doing what they have not been able to do. Meanwhile the rubbish collectors also got the message and were no longer using that particular corner to gather all the neighbourhood black rubbish bags in one place before picking them up.
The other story was about a badly parked car on a road where signs had been placed for cars not to park there because the road was being used as an alternative bus route. This one car caused a 45 minute traffic jam, preventing buses and cars from passing through. When the police and wardens could not trace the owner, a group of men finally decided to lift the car and push it back to allow a free flow of traffic.
Both stories have a common theme and are glaring examples of what happens when enforcement miserably fails (or is non-existent). People simply start taking matters into their own hands. As the island gets more crowded, and as new residents quickly cotton on to the knowledge that you can get away with just about anything because everyone else does what they like without any repercussions, the problems will just keep escalating. I have written ad nauseam about this, but it bears repeating because everything keeps coming back to this one crucial fact. Without proper enforcement, the numerous laws we have on paper mean zilch.
You can apply this to any number of incidents, accidents, confrontations and the general nuisances we comes across and read about every single day. When news was announced that traffic police would be using speed guns to catch speeding drivers, I read quite a few comments from people objecting vociferously to this practice (“this will only lead to more traffic!”), and I had just had to laugh: did they realise that they were basically admitting that they regularly go over the speed limit and are thus breaking the law, on a regular basis? So what did they want exactly? Why, to keep things just as they are, of course, where the speed limit says 60 but you whiz by at 80 or more – who cares right, as long as you can still slyly outwit those pesky speed cameras and no one is any the wiser?
But the number of fatal accidents on our roads are no laughing matter, especially when drink driving is concerned. And when it comes to these cases, it is not like dumping rubbish or a badly parked car – we can hardly take matters into our own hands. We have to rely on the authorities to keep dangerous, inebriated drivers off the roads and we should be able to have faith in a justice system to impose harsh penalties as the only possible deterrent.
How many times have we read official press releases, announcing with a flourish that breathalyzers are going to be used? If they were seriously being used as consistently as they should be, we would not hear of so many crashes, and people being run over, especially over the weekend. I have been informed that two breathalyzers donated to the Gozo police force by an NGO called Justice to Ensure Safer Streets (JESS) in August 2017, are laying on some shelf gathering dust. Despite meeting with all the top brass on the dire need for more enforcement, and trying to educate and create awareness, its founder Toni Ann Muscat had to reluctantly admit defeat in the face of all the apathy (she handed the NGO over to Doctors for Road Safety). It was a bitter blow, compounded by the fact that she had set up the NGO after her best friend’s daughter, Jessica Tabone, was killed in 2015 when a drunk driver crashed head on into the vehicle she was a passenger in.
His alcohol intake was three times over the limit.
He was driving on the wrong side of the road.
He was also a police officer, aged 20.
The criminal case is still dragging in court, and according to news reports he was still allowed to serve as a police officer up to a year after the fatality, although he is now on suspension. In none of the news reports did I see his name or photo published. Because that is another issue we need to talk about – the way different culprits are treated differently, depending on who they are.
If enforcement were really in place, we would not keep waking up on a regular basis to the news of such horrific accidents. The scourge of drunk driving made the news again recently with the case of Michael Caruana Turner, aged 20, who mowed down 8 pedestrians when his vehicle mounted the pavement, one of whom has since died of his injuries. It took almost a week for his name to be published, even though he was arrested on the spot.
It was 4.50am.
He was driving under the influence.
He was tired.
He was speeding.
What upsets me the most about these fatalities is not only the senseless, tragic loss of life of innocent people, but also the cavalier way some speak about the accidents, and this includes the reporting itself. “Negligence”, “losing control of the car”, “unlucky”, “unfortunate”. I also saw a lot of remarks to the tune of, “it could happen to anyone of us, or our children”. Excuse me? No one puts a gun to your head and forces you to drive a car rather than take a taxi.
No, I am sorry, when you deliberately get behind the wheel of a vehicle, knowing full well that you are intoxicated, sloshed, paralytically drunk or high as a kite, then you are making a deliberate decision. You were not unlucky because people happened to get in your way (although they were definitely unlucky to be your victims). When you are drunk or stoned, your reflexes are not the same as when you are sober – they cannot be (although some people will still insist that they have a high tolerance for alcohol and it doesn’t affect their driving, which is downright rubbish). The fact remains that it is not you losing control of your car, but it is you losing control of yourself: your ability to gauge how fast you are going, whether you are on the right side of the road, whether you have closed your eyes for a split second and whether you have the capacity to press the brakes in time to avoid crashing into another car, or running over someone. Every time, you drive drunk, you change from being just someone who has had a few too many, to someone who is now maneuvering a potential lethal weapon. The vehicle is no longer just your shiny, expensive toy, but becomes a death machine because the person operating it is frankly, playing Russian roulette, not only with his own life, but what is worse, with the life of anyone who happens to be in his way.
You might just about make it back home 100 times, completely off your head, and no one is your victim, and the only thing you have to show for it is a pounding headache and the mother of all hangovers the next morning. But it only takes one time for the unthinkable nightmare to happen and the lives of everyone involved will never be the same again.
And unless enforcement and harsh penalties are implemented, the fatal statistics will just keep on mounting.