Saturday 04 February 2023

People are finally worried about breathalyser tests, and it’s about time too

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today

Breathalyser tests have been around a number of years, but for the first time, I am hearing people actually voicing their concerns at being stopped by police at road blocks for fear of being tested for their alcohol intake.

Everywhere I go, I overhear conversations of people discussing alcohol limits. There is a lot of confusion around as people discuss what the limit is (2 units? 3 units? is a shot of whisky the same as a pint of beer?) and whether there should be a distinction drawn between those who can ‘hold their drink” and are not even affected by five glasses of wine or spirits, and those who get tipsy after just one glass. Many argue that police officers should only have the right to test those who are clearly inebriated rather than arbitrarily carrying out tests on whoever they stop at a road block.

The sudden spike in interest all started on Christmas Eve when Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela announced that “During the festive season, Police traffic work will be intensifying with more breathalyser tests and road checks, both during the day and night to ensure better road security across Gozo and Malta.” We have heard this all before of course, but what really brought people up sharp were the harsher fines and penalties. According to a report by Malta Today, “If caught driving over the limit when stopped by the police you will receive a large fine and confiscation of your licence. If your blood alcohol limit is above 80mg then you could also face imprisonment. The actual penalty you get is up to the magistrate who hears your case, and depends on your offence. A first offence carries a fine of not less than €1,200 or to imprisonment not exceeding three months, or both. For a second or subsequent conviction, the punishment is raised to a fine of not less than €2,329 or to imprisonment not exceeding six months or to both. You may also be banned from driving.”

The visibly increased presence of the police on our roads signalled that this was not just another press release, but that it was really happening.

For the first time, people were genuinely worried about their drinking over New Year’s Eve out of fear they would be stopped. Cabs and taxis could not keep up with the demand for bookings, which was good news to my ears because that meant our streets would probably be much safer. I guess this was something of a first, since usually as a nation, we hear these pronouncements that the police will be clamping down on infringements and we smile to ourselves wryly (u iva), convinced that it will never really happen. And we are usually right because we are not that big on law enforcement in this country, as all foreign nationals who come to live here quickly discover, much to their mixture of shock and dismay. Their reaction intensifies when they realise that, instead of demanding that the laws are adhered to, too many members of the Maltese public are willing accomplices, because with a wink and a shrug, it means they can bend many dubious situations around to their advantage. It takes a lot of getting used to (and many foreigners end up leaving the island for this precise reason – either that or risk suffering from a peptic ulcer).

What is even worse is when you travel and realise that the way laws are circumvented here has made us all a bit too complacent and accepting of the status quo. (“And you know what, there are laws, which are strictly enforced, and that’s not all….people actually OBEY them,” people tell each other in hushed tones full of awe, when recounting their trips to other countries). It is easy, much too easy, to be lulled into such a dulled state of mind by the general lack of discipline that we forget that the laws which are broken so blithely (smoking in clubs, littering, dumping, traffic violations, noise pollution, disturbing the peace etc) are simply not acceptable elsewhere.

So finally, it is a relief to see that everyone is taking this seriously, and it’s about time too because up until now it was all rather a bit of a joke. For example, as long ago as 2005, there was the following PQ answered by then Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg: “The police between January and last month (September) carried out 61 breathalyser tests after an initial test proved positive. Dr Borg said 23 proved positive in the second test and 38 refused the second test or the test was not completed. In all cases, criminal action was taken in court.” (Times of Malta)

So, you mean to tell me that only 61 people were found to be driving under the influence in a period of nine months? That’s an average of a mere six people per month. Uhm, I don’t think so. This is Malta, we are talking about, remember? Where you don’t even start enjoying your night out until you are officially ‘patata’ (plastered). Where weddings are an excuse to get sloshed for “free” at the open bar (or at least to drink the equivalent of the value of the cash present you gave the couple). And where kids as young as 14 are initiated into the binge drinking culture once they hit the streets of PV and learn to get quickly drunk by buying cheap booze from a convenience store to get the obligatory buzz.

A quick Google search revealed countless attempts year after year when Police have promised to do something about drinking and driving, but I think this is the first time that they have actually followed through on their promise. You can tell because everyone is jittery about drinking too much. And all I can say is, Amen to that.

But then, along comes the GRTU…

But then, just when you thought a semblance of discipline was finally seeping in through the dark clouds of lawlessness and uncontrolled chaos, the GRTU had to come along and spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “harsh drink driving laws could make people dine out less often.”

“I’m not disputing the good intentions behind this policy but the upshot of it is that it will become more expensive for people to go out,” Philip Fenech told MaltaToday. “I’m not saying that businesses fared badly throughout the festive period, but we could already see an element of people opting to stay inside rather than go out.”

Well, may I suggest that perhaps the reason more people are organizing parties at home has nothing to do with the enforcement of the drink/driving laws but a lot to do with being tired of getting ripped off by the often exorbitant prices? In any case, there are many ways to avoid being penalised – there could be a designated driver (not everyone needs to get sloshed to have fun) or else they could pool in for a cab as so many did on NYE, which works well for everyone, while also cutting down on traffic and the headache of finding parking places for several cars.

As for people dining out less often, I beg to differ. Let us leave aside just how callous that argument sounds (are they really more worried about the economy than about people dying every day in tragic accidents?) Clamping down on drinking and driving does not mean you don’t go out, it simply means that those out socializing will be forced to change the way they decide to get home. Just think, no more cars swerving like maniacs, overtaking at breakneck speed and drivers maiming or killing their passengers, other drivers or pedestrians in the early hours of the morning.

Surely, that can only be a good thing.

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