Friday 03 April 2020

All it takes is a split second to cause an accident

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

There I was, driving along on a busy main road, minding my own business, dutifully obeying the 60km speed limit, when I heard incessant honking behind me. From my rearview mirror I saw a middle-aged man with an angry face, gesticulating with his arms, indicating that I should pull over to the inside lane so that he could pass.

Why should I have? I was not going too slow, in fact I was obeying the law, and there was the same amount of moving traffic in both lanes anyway, so I made gestures pointing to the speed limit signs dotted at regular intervals along the road (although frankly I was sorely tempted to make other gestures because his beeping was highly annoying and quickly getting on my nerves). So I stood my ground and did not switch lanes, while muttering my best colourful curse words under my breath.

Well Mr-I-am-in-such-a hurry finally managed to zig-zag from the inner lane and plonked himself in front of me where ….he promptly had to slam on the brakes and stop because the traffic had jammed up again. And that is how we continued for the rest of the way, with him now (happily?) in front of me, until we took different forks in the road to our respective destinations.

This is just one example of the many types of altercations we have on our roads every day. Mine was admittedly mild, and at least was not accompanied by road rage, or an accident. But it probably gives a very clear picture of just how easy it is for accidents to happen as a result of drivers hell-bent on some kind of Formula 1 chase to get to wherever they are going to, even though the sheer traffic in Malta makes it virtually impossible. Just when you think you are zooming along as fast as you can possibly go (breaking the law by going over all the speed limits in the process), you have to slow down again because….traffic.

I live on a main road where the noise of screeching tyres, speeding cars and revved-up engines is such a commonplace sound that I don’t even register it any more. When I hear someone going at a particularly crazy speed, I automatically tense up and hold my breath, waiting for the inevitable crunching noise of metal bashing against metal (and hopefully not against human flesh and bones). Many accidents have occurred along this stretch of road, some of them fatal, and if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that most of them were a result of reckless driving, especially speeding.

It is also true that pedestrians themselves are sometimes contributing to accidents as they pop out of nowhere (their favourite trick seems to be when they magically appear from in between parked cars), dashing in between the traffic and expecting to cross the road and for you to have enough time and quick enough reflexes to not kill them. Careless, jaywalking pedestrians make me very nervous – the ones which are particularly heart-stopping are where adults have fidgety children with them because you have to make sure the child does not suddenly break away from their parent’s hold, or when parents push their pram out in front of them into traffic before even checking if it is safe, for all the world as if this flimsy pram has some kind of magic shield and will not be smashed into smithereens by an oncoming car.

Seriously, if you had to stop and think about the near misses and the possible accidents we avert every day, you would never drive again, because the mere thought of “what might have happened” as you swerve and brake, with your heart in your mouth, is enough to turn you into a lifelong owner of a Tal-Linja card.

These were just some of the thoughts which have been going through my mind since I read about the woman sentenced to five years in prison for the involuntary manslaughter of an elderly man and for grievously injuring his elderly sister, who has been left disabled, as they were crossing the road. There has been an understandable uproar at the harshness of the sentence (especially since, compared to similar cases, there seems to be a lack of consistency from the Courts) followed by a petition asking for clemency. Meanwhile, the Justice Minister has tabled amendments to the law which will allow Magistrates to use their discretion on what a minimum sentence should be, although it is not clear how this will exactly help the woman who has already been sentenced. (The law which made manslaughter punishable by a minimum of a five year sentence, came into being in 2009 following one of the country’s worst traffic accidents, when five teenagers from Qrendi who were passengers in a van, were killed.)

What can be said with certainty is that it was a horrific tragedy for all concerned. One man is dead, a woman is disabled and a young mother has had her life shattered into a million pieces, not only because of the inevitable guilt and remorse, but because I cannot imagine how she will be able to put her life back together if the sentence (which is now under appeal) is confirmed. Who knows how many times she has replayed the events of that day over in her mind wondering, “what if”, or “if only”?

Every time we get behind the wheel, and every time we cross the road, we need to remember that it only takes a fraction of a second, a moment when we are not paying enough attention, and the act of pressing our foot on the accelerator just a bit too much, to wipe out not just one life, but the lives of all those who are involved in the accident, and their families.

Slow down, no matter what the urgency is, everything can wait…but a human being’s life cannot be brought back.

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