Own Initiative Investigation: Vehicle idling on Gozo Ferries – Health implications & actions taken

The Case

On the 2nd of August 2023, the Times of Malta published a letter from Mr Emanuel Galea of Victoria, highlighting a significant health concern on Gozo ferries. The issue pertained to several vehicles that kept their engines running throughout the ferry crossing, exposing both passengers outside these vehicles and the Gozo Channel crew to potentially toxic emissions in an area with limited ventilation. The letter further mentioned that when the Gozo Channel crew attempted to address the issue with the drivers of these vehicles, they were often ignored.

The Inquiry

The Office of the Ombudsman, acknowledging the seriousness of the concerns raised by Mr Galea, initiated a direct engagement with the Gozo Channel. The objective was to gain a deeper understanding of the established policies and measures pertaining to such occurrences. Specifically, the Ombudsman’s Office sought clarity on the Gozo Channel’s Shipboard Operating Procedures and any other related guidelines that address the issue of vehicles idling during transit and passengers staying on the car deck.

Upon investigation, the Gozo Channel confirmed the existence of their Shipboard Operating Procedures, which explicitly prohibit passengers from remaining on the car deck during ferry transit. Additionally, they provided a Fleet Letter that instructs crew members to inform passengers about the inherent risks and policy violations related to staying inside their vehicles with engines running.

Outcome

To further address the matter and ensure the safety of all aboard, the Gozo Channel disclosed an upcoming initiative: starting from the 18th of August, a police officer would be assigned to inspect ferries daily between 8.00 am and 6:00 pm. This step is expected to bolster enforcement, ensuring compliance with ferry regulations and promoting passengers’ and crew’s health and safety.

Sequel

On the 17th of October 2023, the Office of the Ombudsman brought to the attention of the Gozo Channel that police officers were not consistently present on the ferries, as previously informed by Gozo Channel. The Office highlighted a specific crossing where no police officer was present, and vehicles were idling throughout the journey.

On the 9th of November 2023, the Ministry for Gozo relayed a response from Gozo Channel addressing this issue. Gozo Channel acknowledged that engine idling had been a persistent problem, and the most effective control method seemed to be the presence of a police officer on board. This officer’s role was to remind passengers not to remain in the garage or leave engines running, primarily during the hotter months when passengers are inclined to use air conditioning.

However, the cost of maintaining a permanent police presence was highlighted as a significant challenge. The cost calculations provided by Gozo Channel indicated a substantial financial commitment required to sustain this enforcement method. Additionally, it was noted that Gozo Channel crew members faced verbal and physical abuse when attempting to enforce the engine shutdown policy, leading to the necessity of police involvement. However, in the absence of a police officer, compliance was minimal.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Office of the Ombudsman acknowledges the financial burden Gozo Channel faces in enforcing the engine shutdown policy. Yet, Gozo Channel must adhere to maritime transport regulations that prohibit engine idling for the safety and well-being of passengers and crew. Therefore, the responsibility to enforce these regulations rests with Gozo Channel.

The Office of the Ombudsman recommends the following:

  • Police Spot Checks: Rather than a permanent police presence, unannounced spot checks by police officers could be implemented, especially on days of heavy traffic movement between the two islands. Non-compliant passengers found during these checks could be subject to fines.
  • Increased Signage and Awareness Campaigns: Given the limited effectiveness of existing signage in garages, a more robust awareness campaign is advised. This could include repeated audio and video messages on the ferry, highlighting the dangers of engine idling and the repercussions of non-compliance.
  • Alternative Enforcement Strategies: In light of the financial and practical challenges of maintaining a police presence, alternative enforcement strategies should be considered, including the training of Gozo Channel employees in conflict resolution and legal enforcement of rules and the recording of vehicle registration numbers of non-compliant passengers and relative coordination with police authorities.
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