Saturday 04 February 2023

The never-ending saga of the big fish and the small fry

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It is with a heavy heart that I am writing, once again, about yet another senseless death. Cocaine, alcohol, a fast car, and who knows what else proved a lethal mix for a hapless young woman who (as far as we know) just seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Not surprisingly, Jeremie Camilleri, the driver of the BMW who mowed Pelin Kaya down in the early hours of Wednesday morning, has been on the receiving end of a lot of vitriol and abuse on his Facebook page. As much as I am normally against trolling, in this case, who can blame the public? In private, I too have said many unrepeatable things of what I would do if that were my daughter whose body went flying through the air in a split second. The anger comes in waves as does the sorrow especially at the sight of her family emerging from Court, her sister doubled over in grief. I tried to watch the video of them addressing the press but I couldn’t bear to witness their agony, and I had to turn it off.

The nation keeps being shell-shocked by these horrific deaths, but worse still is that each jolt we experience is accompanied by the feeling of utter helplessness. As if to remind us that this keeps happening over and over again, this week the Court case started being heard against another man who was driving under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, who killed a woman who was here on her honeymoon. Raina Boughatta, 30, was killed by Wayne Buttigieg, who was driving a Mercedes at great speed, while she was on a zebra crossing in November 2021. Her husband watched in horror from the other side of the street as the whole thing unfolded in front of his eyes, unable to help her, unable to stop it. From a newlywed he became a widower; a broken man.

Maybe it is the relentless, insatiable nature of the 24 hour news cycle, but to my shame I had already forgotten about this tragedy which happened a mere two years ago, and it was only after reading the full details that it jogged my memory.

Each time we hear of another life being snatched away, more broken-hearted, inconsolable relatives, followed by another stream of RIPs. But then what? It is obvious that there are too many people high on drugs or drunk (or both) nonchalantly getting behind the wheel and not enough is being done about it. We have unemployed men like Camilleri who are clearly getting money from somewhere in order to fuel their drug habit and being able to afford a BMW, and yet we rarely hear about a serious clampdown by the Tax Compliance Unit to investigate their source of income. Even suggesting such a thing elicits scoffs of derision and mirthless laughter by a cynical, completely disillusioned public…and who can blame them? As I write it, I am likewise shaking my head …who am I kidding?

Not that I would wish such a tragedy on anyone, but maybe what it will take is for someone “important” to lose a loved one at the hands of a dangerous, out-of-control coke-head, driving at breakneck speed…maybe then things will be shaken up and these menaces to society will be taken off our roads once and for all. Laws must be amended and tightened to make driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs bar you from driving for life. People who cannot overcome their drug addiction or alcoholism are simply unable to handle a vehicle period, because as we have seen time and again, in their unsteady hands and altered judgement, a car becomes a lethal weapon. Killing someone when drunk or high should carry a maximum life sentence and not a mere slap on the wrist. And above all, there needs to be justice and closure for families, even if the culprit is a big fish with important connections who can weasel his way out of anything. Lack of faith in our institutions has not just happened overnight but has been a systematic erosion, like waves beating and pounding weatherbeaten rocks which finally cave under the pressure. We cannot keep seeing the guilty party dusting themselves off, walking away and continuing with their life, as if nothing had happened, leaving devastation in their wake.

I expect our MPs to stand up for the bereaved families and push through legislation to come down harshly on drivers guilty of DUI’s in the same way they have fast tracked less important matters. That is their job and their role, and it’s about time they start doing it. There need to be constant roadblocks especially in the eerie hours of the night when drivers who are stoned out of their minds treat the roads like their own personal racetrack – we all hear them revving their engines and tyres squealing, so why can’t the Police? If they need help identifying the most notorious areas, I’m sure Joe Public will be quite willing to point them in the right direction. Come down hard on offenders with an iron fist so that perhaps, just perhaps, we might start feeling a bit safe again.

And, finally, may I just add that jaywalking should also be illegal. While there are mad, dangerous drivers out there I also see too many pedestrians who seem to get a thrill from zigzagging through busy traffic, taking their life into their own hands. It is not always possible to slam on the brakes and stop in time, and it is not always the driver’s fault. There are certain main roads which are not meant for pedestrians to cross from, such as a bypass, and instead of walking a bit further to find a bridge or a zebra crossing, you find some people trying to make a run for it. Taking those few extra steps might just save your life.

Local councils, LESA and the case of the worthless permit

It came to my attention this week that those permits we apply for when we need to reserve parking spaces for a crane or high-up to deliver/remove furniture or to do any maintenance work on our properties are basically – worthless. In other words, if a car is parked in front of your home despite your carefully placed permit which you diligently applied and paid for from your friendly neighbourhood local council, no LESA official can tow the car away and few Police officers will help you trace the owner. The reason? Well because in July of last year a lawyer successfully challenged the law (in front of the Administrative Review Tribunal) which allowed LESA to tow his car away because he was parked in a spot where there was a tow zone permit.

According to the ruling, “the signs, which permit the establishment of a tow zone for a limited time, do not conform with the laws on traffic signs and that Transport Malta should have never allowed its administration to be passed on to the persons applying for them…It is illegal for private individuals to stick notices on walls warning drivers not to park in a temporary ‘tow-away zone’ until works are carried out.”

The crux of the matter is this: local councils are still requiring people to apply for these permits against payment…and if a warden strolls by and you do not have such a permit you can get fined. The paradox is that, according to the ruling, the permit itself is illegal, so one could argue that local councils themselves are actually breaking the law.

Notwithstanding this, local councils are still happily collecting this stream of revenue while the common citizen has to either fight with his neighbours or take matters into his own hands to ensure that when the crane/high-up arrives, there is actually somewhere for it to park. In other words, he is paying for a service but the disciplinary forces have washed their hands of it and not touching it with a barge pole, because of this ruling. And six months down the line, no one in our over-crowded Parliament has lifted a finger to solve this legal anomaly.

Once again, we have a classic example of how in this country the small fry, the little man, especially the one that always endeavours to do things by the book, inevitably gets the short end of the stick.

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