Every parent’s worst nightmare is having a disaster afflict a child. The feelings of frustration and helplessness are only compounded when such an unforeseen event seems particularly senseless or preventable. This past week a traffic accident brought these feelings close to home. One of my son Oliver’s good friends, a nearly-three-year-old Czech/American boy with a sweet demeanor and a mischievous smile was struck by a car while his mom pushed him in a stroller through a crosswalk while taking his sister to school.
I shutter to imagine the pain and anguish my friend must have experienced in the split second the car first gunned its motor and then accelerated from a stopped position into the crosswalk. In a surprisingly lucky move, the boy flew from the stroller, went under the car and emerged from the other side, still screaming. The car continued another 50m down the road, the stroller caught in its grill, before it actually came to a stop. When, in shock, my friend retold the story, she emphasized how the car had been stopped before she stepped into the crosswalk. As a fellow mother, I can only begin to imagine the depth of her anguish.
When I learned of the accident it was impossible not to think about how many times I’ve worried that something similar might happen to me or my children when crossing streets in Prague. Like most parents, I stress the importance of looking both ways when crossing the street and crossing only in designated areas. However, talking about the importance of street safety and walking through the streets of Prague safely are two very different things.
In his Radio Prague piece entitled, Come to the Czech Republic. But don’t try crossing the road, Rob Cameron addresses the safety issues (or lack of it) on Czech roads for pedestrians. Cameron’s article dates from 2003, so there should be reason to hope that the situation on Czech roads has improved in the past 7 years. Unfortunately, most of the flaws in the system that Cameron points out (aggressive Czech drivers not stopping at crosswalks, giving cars turning rights and pedestrians a “green” on a crossing at the same time) haven’t changed.
To support this point, I found a blog post on Aktuálně.cz from March 2010 written by an aghast British expat film director Steen Agro, “Why did the Expat cross the road?” Agro felt that each daily crossing over Czech roads was a “serious journey” where aggression and speed take precedence over safety. Recounting his narrow miss in a crosswalk, Agro’s story rings strikingly similar to Cameron’s and other accounts I’ve heard.
Walking through Prague can be lovely, the children like the “fancy” cobblestone sidewalks and I think my children gain valuable experiences by traveling through the neighborhoods at a slower pace. Not to mention, they learn to rely on their legs and not a motorized vehicle to take them places.
However, like Cameron and Agro, I don’t particularly enjoy crossing Prague’s busy streets, particularly with my children, one in each hand, or pushing the stroller in front of me into traffic. Although a Czech law passed in 2001 granted right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks, the likelihood of drivers actually respecting the law is highly variable. On four-lane roads, even at times when one lane of traffic has stopped for me to cross, I’ve been forced to jump back when a speeding car in the second lane of traffic hasn’t seen us or refuses to give way. Another friend of mine was hit by a truck while waiting on the sidewalk for her husband two years ago. Even when I do my best to make eye contact with the driver, I still breathe a sigh of relief when we get across a road safely.
Looking at the traffic statistics from 2009, pedestrians are almost twice as likely to die on Czech roads as in other European Union countries. Experts suggest that the high rates of pedestrian deaths in the Czech Republic are as result of numerous factors, one of which is directly related to drivers not respecting inner-city speed limits (typically 50km/hr). With fears of being hit from behind by a driver following too closely, many drivers have a habit of speeding through pedestrian crossings instead of coming to a stop. Sadly, of the 125 people killed at crossings in 2009, five were children, which I see as another indication that the problem of safety on the streets is one which deserves serious attention from multiple angles. Regulations, including making crosswalks more visible (installing lights, speed bumps, etc.) as well as cracking down on drivers who flagrantly disobey traffic and parking regulations may help, but it will take a significant change in driving habits to be truly effective.
While driving on Prague’s city streets, the country’s major highways and its rural country roads, I have encountered more extremes of driving speeds and styles than I’ve ever experienced in the US. Slow-moving farm vehicles, fast-moving, top-heavy construction trucks, motorcyclists, people on bicycles, regular cars and pedestrians all share the roadways in the villages near us. I would never want to walk with my children for any distance on these country roads, as they have no shoulder and little protection from wayward vehicles.
Driving on the freeway, it’s customary (although illegal) for faster drivers to tailgate those passing in the left lane when they’re believed to be passing too slowly. In one incident from earlier this year, a man aggressively tailgated a slower woman driver who was passing a tractor-trailer. He went so far as to brush against the women’s car, inadvertently causing her car to flip off the interstate. I was horrified when Radek recounted the story from the news to me as I felt that the woman driver could have just as easily been me. There have been times that I’ve come to a stop at an intersection in Prague and just as I turn to check if the coast is clear, an impatient driver starts honking in frustration behind me. Likewise, I’ve been honked at for stopping at a yellow light before it turns red and for remaining standing during a yellow light before it turns to green.
Having witnessed the aggression, predominantly among Czech male drivers, from both a driver’s perspective and the perspective of a frequent walker, it made me realize that even following the traffic rules doesn’t ensure that I can keep my children and myself safe on Czech roads. Keeping children safe while walking should be a serious priority in a country where the majority of school age children either walk or take public transportation or a combination of the two to get to and from school and their afternoon activities. During both the morning and afternoon rush hours, elementary-school children are trusted to walk short distances unaccompanied. Their only companion is usually a mobile telephone, which although it allows parents to check in from afar, does little to ensure their children’s safety on the streets and sidewalks of the city.
In a seemingly endless cycle, the traffic statistics show that safety on Czech roads is highly variable. Rates of traffic accidents often decrease for six months after a new law tightens restrictions then soar again, when punishments cease to be adequately enforced and the media-hype subsides. In the aftermath of the law established in 2001 giving pedestrians the absolute right of way in crosswalks, traffic violations against pedestrians actually increased significantly before eventually decreasingly. When the point-system for drivers was established in 2006, it included stricter penalties for drivers and gave the police the right to confiscate a driver’s license on the spot. Although accidents decreased for six months or so, the rates eventually shot back up. As of January 2010, Czech police are required to use a breathalyzer on every driver they stop, regardless of the circumstances, in hopes of reducing the rates of alcohol-related accidents. Whether or not a law will be effective depends greatly on the seriousness with which the police enforce the regulation.
When I learned of my friend’s son’s critical condition late on the night of the accident, I felt such a range of emotions. Outrage, sadness and a sense of helplessness at the horror of the tragedy poured through me and I couldn’t imagine how my friend was managing to deal with her own emotions, particularly since, according to hospital rules, she wasn’t allowed to be with (or even see) her son while he was in ICQ and they waited for his condition to stabilize. I only grew more angered to read in the news that on the morning of my friend’s accident there were three stories related to youth being injured in traffic related accidents, at least two of which required trips to the hospital.
Knowing that if the tragedy had happened to us, we wouldn’t be able to be strong without some support, several friends from other half-n-half families began to quickly mobilize any resources we could think of: food, care for her daughter, phone calls and text messages of support were the obvious initial offerings. Even these gestures of support seemed so insignificant when faced with the horrible reality of the accident and the anxiety of not knowing much about the boy’s condition. As parents and friends, it was impossible to sit still without doing anything.
In the following day, a flood of emails continued to offer different ideas of ways to help the family. News of improvement in the boy’s condition bolstered everyone’s spirits, and on the following day when my friend could finally be with her son in the hospital, her text message revealed that the huge burden she’d been carrying had lightened a bit. After living in Prague for several years now, I’ve felt comforted and loved by my extended friend-circle of Czechs and non-Czechs, and I feel lucky to be a part of the support system taking shape now to offer my friend and her children whatever small gestures of comfort and care can be appreciated in the light of such a devastating accident. I hope that every time a traffic accident involving a pedestrian is publicized, at least one driver will think twice before speeding through a crosswalk and putting innocent children, elderly walkers and the rest of us at risk.