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Fighting for change in Prague’s traffic safety

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One month ago, when I wrote my column The unforeseen disaster about a traffic accident the three-year old son of a friend of mine was involved in, I had no idea that pedestrian crossing accidents would remain so forefront on my mind. Despite lingering wounds and a skull fracture, the boy should make a full recovery from his experience of being struck and thrown from his stroller as the car continued driving through a pedestrian cross-walk in Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood. Although my friend was badly shaken by the trauma of the accident, she is filled with gratitude for her son’s safety and is learning to cope with the physical and mental repercussions, including the unavoidable stress of crossing Prague’s streets again.

In the aftermath of my friend’s accident, I learned from mutual friends of another family in Prague’s international community who suffered the tragic loss of their eight-year-old daughter about six months ago in a pedestrian crossing. This story has plagued my conscious, in large part because these accidents should be preventable with proper awareness and a change in Prague’s driving culture.

On 19 November of last year while walking home from school in Prague 3’s densely populated Žižkov neighborhood, Anežka Stickney was crossing on a green signal through a pedestrian cross-walk on Rokycanova street when she was struck by a náklaďák (lorry) from a nearby construction site that was turning right, also on green, from Prokopova street.

Anežka lived 200 meters from the Czech škola that she attended. Like many of her Czech classmates, walking home from school was a part of her daily routine, plus a way that she helped her mother who was at home with her infant brother.

Although Anežka was accustomed to walking home from school, the construction of a parking garage for the city of Prague 3 had disrupted her normal route and doubled the number of crossings (from 2 to 4) she had to navigate before she reached home. When Anežka’s mother went looking for her after she was late coming home, she discovered her daughter’s body on the street in the third crossing. Peramedics tried for 50 minutes to resusitate her, with both her parents standing by, but there was no hope.

When I met with Anežka’s father, Bradley Walker, he admitted that his life since Anežka’s death has been an ongoing hell. He and his wife decided to leave their Prague 3 neighborhood, as it was simply too painful for them to continue to walk past the intersection where their daughter had been struck down. No change to the intersection has been made, but since Anežka’s death a crossing guard has been placed on duty during morning arrival and afternoon departure school hours. Still, Bradley has made a conscious decision to fight to incite improved traffic safety around his daughter’s school in the hopes that no other parents or families needlessly suffer a similar loss.

In a press conference speech held on Friday, 21 May, in the Prokopka Hotel near the scene of Anežka’s death, Bradley spoke about raising awareness and of the collective and individual responsibility each of us has in creating a safer Prague for our children and elderly. Although his speech was humanitarian in nature, not political, he highlighted the responsibilities that politicians, business owners, drivers and pedestrians share in order to keep the delicate balance of life a top priority in the city’s urban landscape. After the press conference, MF Dnes published a piece on Bradley’s mission. Since then, word of his call-to-arms has been spreading through the Czech media, including a DJ on Radio 1 who dedicated his Friday night show to Anežka and encouraged people to slow down and pay attention.

When I spoke with Bradley, he highlighted three main measures that he believes would significantly improve traffic safety in Prague, including instilling traffic calming measures near schools and in residential neighborhoods (i.e. creating physical barriers, crosswalks with flashing lights denoting pedestrian traffic and raised intersections) to slow traffic. He cited London as an example of a city where pedestrian concerns play an important role in the restructuring of traffic during a period of construction. If a construction site wants to take over a sidewalk in London, they have to provide pedestrians with a comparable sidewalk or safe crossing, even if it means cutting into traffic. When Bradley suggested a similar measure to the authorities in Prague 3, his request was denied on the basis that creating a crosswalk in the street would take up too much of the space used by motorized traffic.

Appropriate signage goes along with construction site safety. Prague is teaming with construction zones, particularly in the area where the Blanka tunnel is being built. Roadways and right-of-ways are constantly changing, yet the traffic signage is all too often left unchanged or only partially changed. The other day I drove past an intersection that indicated that I had the right-of-way, and also instructed me to stop and yield at the same time. With confusion in the traffic signage, drivers are more apt to make dangerous mistakes.

A third component to Bradley’s improvement plan calls for increased enforcement of existing traffic regulations by Prague’s police force. As I’ve read in articles from other traffic authorities, police forces in the Czech Republic are currently understaffed, which makes enforcing the rules more difficult. There are other times when I’ve seen policemen stationed on the street at a crossing during school hours, but it wasn’t until I actually stopped to let the pedestrian through that the policeman snapped to attention and responded by walking partially out into the street and stopping the other lane of traffic. Bradley and I both agreed that unless the policemen on duty actually want to do their job and enforce traffic restrictions, positive change will be slower to come, even when stricter laws are in place. When I talked to other Czechs, they mentioned that town policemen have limited authority which is a factor I hadn’t considered; still I believe taking an active role in promoting good traffic safety often doesn’t require special powers.

Over the past month, traffic safety in pedestrian crossings and around schools in the city has been hot on my mind. I’ve informally posed the question about pedestrian safety on Prague’s streets to half-n-half parents like myself, Czech friends, traffic safety activists, advocates of public and alternative transportation and friends who go everywhere by car. Although everyone had a different perspective based on their own background and experiences, no one denied that the situation in Prague could be improved upon, at least for the sake of our children. Even my Czech friend who initially told me she didn’t see any problem with the way traffic flows in Prague, later reminded herself of her disappointment after going to the authorities in her district to request speed bumps for their residential street and being denied, on the basis that the speed bumps could unsettle the building foundations of new construction. When she thought about her son walking to and from school, she agreed that she’d like the streets to be safer.

When I met Bradley, I was instantly drawn by his charisma and his determination. Although it wasn’t an easy meeting; as a fellow parent I felt guilty that he’d lost his child and I couldn’t do anything to change that. Still I believed I had a unique opportunity to highlight his efforts to turn the apathy he’s encountered since Anežka’s death into a larger, positive movement.

Ten years ago when Bradley and his wife chose to live in Prague, they believed, like many of us still do, that Prague could be a “world class” city, a place where his daughter would experience the benefits and challenges of navigating life in two languages and flip-flopping between cultures to find her own path. Anežka’s experience was cut short. But it’s not too late for us, as parents of Prague’s next-generation, to help improve traffic safety for our children and to give Bradley back his dream of making Prague into the “world class” city that he and his family once believed it could be.

Half n Half will take a summer (and maternity) holiday and resume its regular stories on the first Friday of September. In the meantime, I’d like to thank readers for your continued support and welcome you to send any memorable “half-n-half” stories from your summer adventures in Prague or in your respective home countries. Have a great summer!

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