07 MAY 2003

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Hands on the wheel, eyes on the roads

Roads, those beleaguered roads. How does Transport and Communications Minister face up to the nation’s woes on those dreaded potholes? MATTHEW VELLA speaks to Censu Galea.

Censu Galea is an early-riser. And he has to leave much of that extra reserve at high gear to tackle the roads problem that has risen to become one of the nation’s greatest ills.
"Looking back at the start of 1998, the situation of the roads remains one of the most important issues today as it was back then. The advantage today is that the Transport Authority, which has now taken over the Roads Department, has an action plan that is being implemented. It also has the experience necessary to understand the defects within the system, to which we have to find solutions."
Both in the question of resurfacing and rebuilding of arterial roads, and village streets, there are around 500 streets to be upgraded, and Galea says this will form the basis of the next five years to come.
"This won’t mean that all the streets will be repaired. Development would still have continued and new streets would have been created."
Despite that, there are still tens of roads that have not yet been improved because of problems of ownership. While there is an authority resurfacing the roads, there are a number of corporations uprooting them, rightly or wrongly, for their own purposes, such as the water services and telephone companies.
"The problem is that when they remove part of a road they usually fail to repair it again. It has to be clarified that these corporations have to mend the roads they uproot as soon as they are ready from their jobs."
And as usual there are the storms, which no matter what, always seem to penetrate the hardened surface of our tarmac:
"I have to make a distinction between certain roads. The press is always keen on reporting on the state of the roads following storms. But if we look at the roads built in the last ten years, no holes actually develop.
"This is partly because they are relatively new. However, in these last five years, we have got contractors to pledge satisfactory standards of road building. We have to assure not only high-level quality in the new roads, but also improve patching to the extent that we will no longer need re-patching week in week out on the same roads.
"We have to see a radical change in the techniques used for re-patching, to ensure higher quality.
"In the Burmarrad, Salina and Mosta-Naxxar northbound roads, we have developed a system where the contractors are responsible for the next five years after delivering the project to repair the roads thereafter at their own expense. Previous contractors who would have delivered low standards were forced to remove the roads and rebuild them.
"We also have to ensure that these roads are delivered practically on time, barring justified reasons which could involve the extension of the time. We also have to ensure that where fines are justified in cases where contractors did not deliver on time, these fines are enforced and upheld. We also impose hefty fines as deterrents to shoddy work."
Traffic safety is also a consideration that Galea has to take well in hand. The Sunny Monte incident brought to light new questions on the safety of our roads. Traffic accidents in Malta are no strange occurrences:
"There are different factors involved in the provision of safety. Roads quality is one of the most determining of factors. But the irony is that the best of roads usually host most of the car accidents, rather than battered village streets. It has to be government to avert these situations.
"Another factor is the drivers themselves. Every week I have a monitoring drive to survey the problem personally, and I see high-speed drivers everywhere. The road signs painted on the road are ignored, namely the double-line that serves as an invisible centre-strip.
"Also, speeding within villages, where traffic is considered to be minimal, tends to attract recklessness from drivers who are not aware that many pedestrians will be ambling through the streets. This is a danger many drivers have to be wary of. In the law’s limitations, us drivers also have obligations when we are at the wheel. Such a small contribution can help save our lives and others."
Education campaigns abroad have seen transport ministries adopt shock techniques, picturing real-life accidents taking place. The shots are brutal images, designed to keep drivers on their feet, to reduce speed and avoid any form of alcohol consumption when driving. Galea knows death as no stranger when it comes to car accidents, and he is concerned so many youngsters still do not fathom the danger they put their lives in when speeding:
"I’m sure death is humans’ greatest fears. I have always tried to instil the concept that when anyone of us is driving, we could end up killing our relatives or friends if we drive recklessly.
"I have been to endless funerals of people killed on the road. The young people’s ceremonies pack the Church, making you realise the respect they had towards the deceased. The minute they leave the funeral, they are bound to make the same mistakes, unfortunately. So one supposes that when mourning we also have to try and review our actions on the road.
"Young people tend to be too eager when they hit the road, and the reality is that a year into your driving life, you are still no driver. Every kilometre you trace is an extra kilometre of experience.
"We now have to be more conscious of our actions. The legal notices on the Points System are already out and these will have to assure that drivers start considering their driving skills when they are on the road. This can only improve driving and lessen those traffic accidents.
"One of my biggest criticisms has been the narrowing of traffic lanes. In this regard, the main priority has been lessening the danger apparent in wide high-speed roads. The other side of the story has it that one-lane roads can only prevent ambulances from reaching accident spots.
"However, one-lane roads do not usually attract accidents like the wide roads where overtaking sees cars crashing head-on. In our country’s circumstances, where we have pedestrians using their cars for a couple of metres distance or jaywalking on the streets, we have to bring to their attention the consequences of their actions.
"To reduce high-speed traffic, we reduced certain roads to one lane and ever since this exercise, we have had no accidents. God willing there will not be any for years to come."
The other side of the transport question has been the safeguarding of the environment, and the adoption of cleaner modes of transport. The public transport system still suffers from ever decreasing popularity, and car ownership remains the culminus of personal status. How far will the Maltese driver forgo this aspect of personal liberty is a question still unanswered:
"Environment is now a main concern for the country. But this also depends of the level of attention we give it, and the environment we live in is a collective result of our individual actions.
"So the question is: what are we determined to contribute to better the environment? Am I ready to use alternative ways of transport and forgo our cars? I don’t think so, although pointing fingers could exacerbate positive reactions. Again, are we ready to use public transport were it rendered more efficient? Possibly not.
"But we have to take individual stock of our actions. For the creation of alternative ways of transport, we must also provide a demand for these. We haven’t seen this yet. Even car-pooling is not exactly popular."
So what about pedestrianisation, which effectively physically limits the usage of private cars?
"Well, take the Valletta-bound routes from Msida and Marsa. I see no good reason for people to use public transport instead of their cars to go to work. Buses pass through there practically every minute. Such traffic problems generated by compulsive usage of private transport have to be addressed through better public transport. Provision of a night-service could serve to have those who are moonlighters or early-risers find alternative transport to take them to work or to their places of entertainment."
The bottom line remains that it is our individual whims that dictate whether we shall be contributing further to the congestion problem or to bettering the environment. How would drastic measures such as London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge be effective?
"These measures are certainly not popular and are not being considered in Malta at the moment. Livingstone’s charge reduced London of 20 per cent of its traffic.
"We had to take into consideration the difference between traffic on schooldays and traffic on normal working days without schooldays. A question I had posed, which had not been received positively, was this: have we arrived at a stage where we should have school start at a later time? Of course, this might coincide with parents taking their kids to school on their way to work."

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
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