Sunday 04 December 2022

We cannot just keep tallying up the number of fatalities

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The problem with writing about the constant traffic accidents on our roads is the risk of sounding trite or of coming out with clichés which have been written a thousand times before. Honestly, just how many times can we write the obvious phrase, “something has to be done!”? In the face of so many fatalities and serious injuries, there is also the added risk of sounding insensitive and cruel if one comes out with sweeping statements as we try and pinpoint blame. Unless one has actually witnessed a traffic accident with their own eyes, or seen video footage of it, it is all guesswork.

Behind every headline there are the victims, their families and friends who have all been impacted by a heart-stopping phone call with the bad (sometimes tragic) news. It is always traumatic, no matter whether at the other end of that phone call one is being told about the person who was the casualty or the one who was at fault.

We don’t know the exact cause of all these traffic accidents, too many of which have been fatal, as we are rarely told anything except that the “driver/motorcyclist lost control of their vehicle”, which can mean anything. It could mean the driver took their eyes off the road to look at their mobile or it could mean that there was a slippery substance on the road, as seems to have been the case with Marie Claire Lombardi who recently died in a motorcycle crash. The latter is one of the few instances where we have been told what could have happened and, in fact, the Police are requesting information from the public who might have seen the vehicle which spilled the substance. In the majority of cases, however, the lack of information means that inevitably there is plenty of conjecture which may or may not be accurate. (In fact, the lack of tact and the wild accusations online must be a double agony for relatives and if it were up to me, I would not allow comments on such stories).

What we do know for a fact is that there are far too many accidents which, again, is stating the obvious. The statistics make grim reading: there have been 21 victims of road accidents to date, making it almost two people a month. This includes pedestrians who are run over; but once again, we are never told whether it is the fault of a negligent, speeding driver or else it’s because the pedestrian was jaywalking, dodging their way between oncoming cars even when there is a zebra crossing close by (and if jaywalking is not a traffic offence it really should be). I realise a Magisterial inquiry take time to be concluded, but once it is ready, there really needs to be an official public announcement, explaining the cause behind every single fatal accident. Perhaps knowing why and how can make us think twice about our own behaviour on the roads.

There are already some excellent radio adverts which are succinct and effective: “if a child had to cross in front of your car right now, could you stop?” And the one where the following phrases are read over each other, making them difficult to understand and thus driving the point home: “Do not use your mobile phone while driving. It is hard to concentrate on two things at the same time”. The messages are simple yet precisely capture the real issue: that we need to be hyper aware not only of how we are driving but of everything going on around us at all times. If you speak to those who have survived a horrific car crash they will tell you that it only takes a split second of not paying attention, for everything to go terribly wrong, changing your life and that of others, forever.

So yes, something needs to be done when there are so many cars, motorcycles, scooters and pedestrians, and everyone is in so much of a rush, impatient, frustrated and filled with road rage. I have yet to see some official statement which addresses these daily accidents with some kind of concrete plan of action. We cannot just keep tallying up the number of deaths as if they were nothing.

The Cannabis confusion

A new law was passed ten months ago which would allow cannabis ‘associations’ to operate and distribute cannabis to its approved members, and an Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis was set up to introduce a regulatory framework for this purpose. This week, however, the chairperson of the Authority Mariella Dimech was fired. When contacted she said, “Over the last 10 months, I have worked with no functional office, no staff, no budget and a political strategy and decision strategy I disagreed with.”

However, when questioned a few days before Ms Dimech was fired, the Reforms Parliamentary Secretary said, “This is a complex sector and I am interested in doing things properly. We will issue our proposals soon. We have given the authority all the resources it needs to issue the licensing. In the last months we have worked to ensure a framework for the criteria defined by law is created.”

The public has a right to know what is going on when it comes to this crucial legislation, without having to try and read between the lines or try and decipher official double speak. It is obvious that nothing has been done to set up the regulations for these associations, as confirmed by the Government itself. The reason seems to be a lack of agreement on who exactly would be given the licences to operate these associations. Ironically it is the NGO which campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis, Releaf, which provided the most answers: “It is now clear how the industry has already taken hold of decision-makers, and aims to transform a human rights framework into a commercial model for the few”. While praising Ms Dimech for listening to the cannabis community and prioritising well-being over financial gains, it added that: “One questions how we can seriously combat the negative effects of a profit-driven illicit market if this is now being replaced by an equally profit-driven market run by a few friends in high places”. 

Meanwhile, Reforms Minister Byron Camilleri gave his assurances that these associations would not be profit-driven, but he would not comment on whether there were any consortia set to run these associations.

It has become very difficult not to be cynical in this country and I simply cannot believe that any new sector dreamed up by this government will be “non-profit”. Labour’s track record in government has not exactly inspired confidence in this respect, because all it has ever spoken about from day one is money and how it will ‘generate wealth’. I’m not saying that a sound economy is necessarily a bad thing, but the way the country has been turned into an insatiable greedy machine has led to a downward nose dive in our quality of life. And the bottom line inevitably turns out to be…the bottom line. It is always about how someone, somewhere can make lots of money at the expense of human dignity.

The sale of passports opened up a whole new stream of revenue for those involved, and had the added ‘bonus’ of hiking up the rate of rental properties because wealthy people can afford to fork out 1000 Euro monthly just to have an address in exchange for citizenship. This has made renting unaffordable for the average Joe. (Apart from the fact that the citizenship scheme has attracted the worst shady type of millionaires). The already powerful construction industry uses refugees; people who are desperate for work and quite willing to cram themselves 8 at a time into substandard accommodation, while being paid a pittance. The growing need for more carers, nurses, cleaners, bus drivers, food couriers and a myriad of other jobs has led to the sheer exploitation of Third Country Nationals who will do anything for a work visa. At the top of the pyramid there are always those who are profiting handsomely and at the very bottom are those working in conditions which are tantamount to slave labour.

So, in what universe does the Minister expect us to believe that these cannabis associations won’t be money making machines? If there is an internal tug-of-war about this issue then we have the right to know all the facts. What exactly is the political strategy which Mariella Dimech said she does not agree with? Because while there is a lot of talk about it all being above board and regulated, the reality is that it is much too tempting for someone behind the scenes to have set their sights on recreational cannabis as being the ‘next big thing’. And as we have seen, when ever the potential to make loads of money is involved, it always ends up badly.

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