What is driving in Malta like? Here’s what you should know
When I first hired a car and jumped behind the wheel in Malta, I had lots of questions running through my mind, like these:
Driving on the left is one of the biggest concerns many drivers have to face. I have found that watching the traffic both ways comes naturally for a driver, regardless of which side of the road you are used to drive on. Now that I think of it, I must have always checked both side mirrors as well as the rear view mirror before joining a new road or turning, as changing from one side of the road to another didn’t feel too difficult when I realised I can trust myself and remember to check both sides. What has sometimes caused difficulties is to remember which side of the road we drive on today, if I travel from country another.
How do you remember to turn the right way in a roundabout when driving on the wrong side of the road?
Luckily many roundabouts are marked with arrows, also in Malta. You are also usually not alone in traffic – you can just follow what other cars do and go with the flow.
What’s the traffic like in Malta? Are there any traffic jams and angry overtakers?
There are recent studies that show that traffic on the island is the main concern of the Maltese people. You should be prepared for them all: slow traffic and very angry, horn blaring locals.
Do other cars give way when joining a new road in Malta?
Not always. You need to claim your space on the road like you own it.
How exactly do you overtake a donkey with a carriage?
Give it as much space as you possibly can, drive slowly and avoid getting your gears wrong which can potentially surprise the animal. I haven’t needed these instructions before but there’s a first for everything!
Do you give way to a horse approaching from the right in a roundabout?
Yes! Even if it’s approaching super slooooow.
Is speeding so common in Malta that I have to hit the emergency break?
Yo should be prepared to break fast. Luckily this is a reflex for experienced drivers so just go ahead and trust yourself.
The speed of driving in Malta
I felt rather confident to get behind the wheel in Malta, as I had given my driver’s license in a left-hand-drive country. The driving speed in Malta seemed mostly okay around the city centres. The only roads I was wary of were the big ones leading to the airport, where the speeds would hit ridiculous levels. By this time I had heard a joke from alocal man who said that you can get Maltese driving licenses inside a Rice Crispies packet. So I prepared myself to defend my space on the roads and hit the pedal when I saw the smallest opportunity to join the big roads or to change lanes. We hired a Hertz car from the Preluna Tower hotel and made sure the insurance would cover everything from scratches to the invasion of space mice or the explosion of the Death Star. Once behind the wheel, I felt ready for my Maltese driving inauguration.
Mysterious parking habits in Malta
The first challenge Malta’s driving gods laid upon me was untangling the mystery of “double parking”. By double parking I mean the scenario where you have parked legally in a parking space and someone parks on the road behind you, blocking all of your exit attempts. As the driver had switched the emergency lights on before vaporizing into the thin air, surely I should know which signal this sends to all of the drivers. I had to quickly put my Sherlock hat on to solve the mystery of getting out of the parking space. I weighed the options – mounting the side walk, denting the wheels and scratching the car or beeping the horn so long that I’d get shouted abuse from the balconies above. Instead I approached a Maltese looking gentleman, who kindly offered me a clue how to solve my double parking puzzle. He hinted that normally the culprit was to be found in a shop nearby. As a local this gentleman had read the emergency lights correctly, I found the parking genius and soon I was on my way again.
Crossing the road as a pedestrian
As the Maltese zebra crossings were few and far between, I have become accustomed to run over the road to get out of the way. Afterwords I stubbornly curse the city planners for placing safe zebra crossings a mile apart. I took great pleasure in surprising pedestrians by slowing down my car early when I spotted someone crossing. A few pissed off beeps from other drivers behind only made me smile inside.
The horse carriage manoeuvre
In Malta you may need to give way to horse carriages. These are not the types that take tourists around Central Park in New York. It seems that they are used as a form of transport by the owners, not for transport anything else. I came across a new type of road user when I was about to enter a roundabout and saw a horse carriage come from my right. At least this was in the afternoon when the traffic was slowing down. So I gave way to the poor horse trotting on the tarmac.
How do the Maltese drive?
I found that I was able to adapt to the driving well, as I prefer to drive on the left. As Malta gets really congested due to the high number of cars per capita, the travelling speed is very slow especially during the rush hour. Some drivers thinking they were the MacGyvers of the road emerged from time to time. Whereas in many countries you can drive economically as the traffic is predictable, in Malta I found myself speeding up and locking the breaks a lot, with a couple of emergency breaks in there too. Towards the end of the day my ankle literally needed a rest after all that gear changing and pedal pumping.
Car accident if you are a foreigner in Malta
The expat / immigrant community warns you of not getting in trouble with the police in Malta. There are circulating rumours of foreigners who have built their lives in Malta having to flee the country in a matter of days when they have been involved in a car accident that was not their own fault. Apparently it is very difficult to win a ruling against a local in the Maltese and Gozotan courts. As the legal system is accused of being corrupt and inefficient, it is best to get on the next flight and depart the country rather than face unjust court proceedings. As I don’t have personal experience in this, I only quote expat stories and articles I have come across. But having a plan B up your sleeve seems to be something foreigners living and working in Malta have developed for one reason or another.
Valletta roads are steep and narrow
How can Malta be so different from Sicily?
If you want to drive in Malta, be prepared for rush hour traffic and some random cowboys who think that speeding up just to emergency break three seconds later is the best practice. If you get a taxi from the airport, they tend to drive aggressively too. One taxi we took actually wasn’t able to break before entering a roundabout, as he was speeding completely unnecessarily. We were very lucky that no other cars were coming our way at the time. Whereas the Italians love their scooters and we saw lots of them just 100km away in Sicily, only a few are driven in Malta. I could imagine the way of driving is one reason for the lack of scooters. The difference in traffic behaviour was great between these two small islands. In Sicily, people crossed freely and drivers slowed down for them, whereas in Malta I recognise similar bad traits like driving in some cities I have lived in in England. Mainly I hate the drivers not slowing down for you when you have to walk across the road. It is almost like the drivers want to prove a point: “there is no zebra crossing here so get the f** out of my way” without considering that the next zebra crossing is a mile away.
Overall, our driving adventure went just fine, as I was prepared to squeeze my car in gaps I would normally not invade in other countries. We spent a good chunk of time just sitting in the static rush hour traffic.
What you should know when Driving in Malta
- Get the best available insurance
- Only use reputable rental companies
- If you drive a heavy van for example, you need to take extra care as the other drivers tend to speed up and then fully hit the breaks
- You will probably hit traffic when approaching cities like Valletta, Sliema, Gzira or St Julians during the rush hour
- If someone has parked behind you a blocked your exit, check the nearest shops if the driver was just picking up the newspaper
Pastizzi photo credit: Charles Haynes