I like to preface every argument I dare make about transport issues with a lesson I was once given in person by Michael Portillo who introduced himself to a meeting of transport officials from all over the world as a former future prime minister of the UK. I worked in the transport ministry at the time, as the trolls on my Facebook wall never tire of reminding me each time they must respond to any criticism I make of Joseph Muscat with a picture of a burning bus.
Michael Portillo told the transport leaders that being transport minister was likely to be anyone’s last job in politics. It’s a line of work where everyone has an opinion and anyone with a steering wheel think they’re experts. The science of transport management, the tortuous research that guides, or should guide policy making, must bow in front of everyone’s so-called common sense. After all, as the former next prime minister of the UK said that one time, when you’re transport minister and people are late for a meeting with you, it is the minister that must apologise to the late comers.
And yet I can’t help feeling some sympathy with the frustration expressed by critics of Transport Malta and its official excuse that it is still “studying” whether to put up speed cameras on the stretch of road that killed another speeding victim last weekend.
Read this Times of Malta editorial for a summing up of the arguments. It quotes the representative of the insurance community, a frustrated local councillor, and the strongly held opinion of the newspaper itself which is urging “draconian” measures to prevent traffic accident.
Parenthesis. I’m not entirely certain anyone should wish for anything draconian. ‘Draconian’ means “excessively harsh and severe” which paints pictures of Judge Dredd pulling drivers out of their cars and tearing them limb from limb.
But probably all Times of Malta meant was measures that would be considered normal in a civilised country. The same measures would only be seen as draconian in comparison with the blinding laissez-faire that we have now. Frankly if law enforcement farted in the general direction of reckless drivers, motorists would find the measure so shockingly uncharacteristic they might very well perceive it as draconian.
I only have some practical second-hand knowledge of transport management which I picked up from the proper experts when I worked with them at the transport ministry. So please don’t take this article as much more than the musings of another opinionated amateur who thinks they know better than certified experts. But I can’t for the life of me understand what needs to be studied before a decision is taken to install a speed camera on a stretch of road.
Let me back up a bit.
A young woman was killed because she was a passenger in a car driven by someone who was over-speeding. The argument of the protesters is that had there been a speed camera on the spot the driver might have been deterred from over-speeding and the passenger’s life could have been saved. Calls for a speed camera preceded the accident and the concerns of those who made the calls proved prescient. But prescience is not science and Transport Malta is patiently explaining that it has nearly completed a scientific study that will answer the question as to whether a speed camera on the spot is necessary.
Having said all that, I ask again: why is a study needed to determine whether a speed camera is necessary? If there was an unlimited budget for speed cameras and if we were to put aside privacy issues about living in a country under constant watch, should it not be desirable to have speed cameras everywhere?
After all, where is it desirable or even inconsequential for people to overspeed? Surely, someone driving at 50 kph in a residential 30 kph zone should be stopped or there’s a risk they might crush a pedestrian. Surely, every speed limit imposed on every street should be enforced and anyone exceeding it should be apprehended and punished if they are not deterred.
Surely, even if the budget for buying and managing cameras is not unlimited and if a fatal accident has brought to the public’s attention the risks of a particular portion of a highway, no more facts but the simple fact that speeding has already been fatal on that spot, are necessary to support the argument for a speed camera.
You’d think so.
Perhaps because I’m serving a life sentence of public mockery for my brush with transport policy but even in this situation, I must try to empathise with the transport mandarins.
For 10 years the government has adopted the policy of easing off rules that motorists might perceive as inconvenient, let alone draconian. I can mention several examples. I will.
They have dismantled local enforcement taking the policing of transport rules away from local councils and abolishing beats and patrols. They have introduced a petitions system to frustrate the work of law enforcement officers and pardon wrongdoing with abandon. They froze charges for car access to Valletta killing the system’s ability to slow down car use.
They removed speed cameras, such as the ones outside Santa Venera tunnels which, incidentally a dozen years ago Times of Malta campaigned to have removed in defence of the fundamental right of over-speeding when emerging from dark places.
They opened bus lanes to ordinary traffic. They left a scandal of corruption in the traffic police section unaddressed destroying what little public confidence existed in a rules system on the road.
They dropped even trying to promote car free days, even once a year.
They froze residential parking schemes apparently in defence of everyone’s right to dump their car where they please for as long as they please.
In simple terms it has been government policy for 10 years to adopt Crowley’s principle of “do what thou wilt (on the road) shall be the whole of the (traffic) law”. It has been the mission of the government to reverse policies that Times of Malta may or may not have described as draconian before 2013 and certainly many clamoured for their reversal.
Transport experts outside government can weep in frustration. Those within it must pretend to be busy studying and researching facts they know intuitively to be true well before the morbidity statistics confirm their view. If you let people do as they please on the road, some will act beyond the limits of the safe. Some will irrationally risk their lives which would be their problem if they didn’t also drag those around them into a crushing end of blood, iron, and tarmac.
Transport Malta experts will not necessarily tell reporters in so many words but what they’re really estimating is how many people would go to the transport minister expecting their speeding ticket to be reversed if they fell afoul of a speed camera. They will be forecasting which politician and which newspaper editorial is going to denounce them for unnecessarily installing draconian enforcement methods.
For remember if you’re the transport minister and a constituent loudly moans about a speeding fine it is you the Minister that must apologise to them.