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Rushing to the grave

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November brought bad news. Only a month ago traffic police statistics suggested that the number of road deaths this year would not surpass last year’s figure of 900. It might have been successful. The lowest number of road deaths recorded in a year was 781 two years ago (after which the numbers began to climb again).

The latest batch of statistics shows that there will be nothing to celebrate. Drivers have underestimated wet conditions and poor visibility at night. More than 100 people died on Czech roads in November, and we should be happy if this year’s death toll doesn’t surpass 1,000. When compared international statistics, the Czech Republic has an average of 119 road deaths per million people. This is far worse than the average (Holland is number one with 48 deaths per million).

The days when we finally learn to drive are still clearly far off. All the more so, since the new traffic police chief Leoš Tržil claims that the problem can be solved with better roads and by cracking down on careless pedestrians. However the fact that more and more people know how to deal with the arrogance of drivers brings hope. Now it’s a matter of waiting to see which policy will win out.

Smooth traffic flow

Traffic police chief Leoš Tržil, originally a construction engineer, likes cars. For many years, he owned the antique model Tatra 613 and organised events for fans. “When you’re driving in a line of 60 similar cars, it’s a wonderful feeling,” he says, recalling the times when he headed traffic police in the South Moravian region. When he took over his current post he announced that reckless drivers could expect more police controls on roads. But he also said that we shouldn’t expect that a greater police presence would decrease the number of serious accidents. “Studies show that traffic police can decrease the number of accidents by only 10 to 15%,” he says. It’s true that Holland does not have more police officers on the streets than the Czech Republic, and yet it has much better accident statistics. But that in and of itself does not mean much. The Dutch have replaced police controls with a system of radars. In Spain and Portugal, where there are also fewer police officers on roads, they have adopted a similar approach.

There is nothing wrong with a love of cars. But Leoš Tržil isn’t concerned enough about finding ways to change the poor driving style of Czech drivers. He says the key to decreasing the number of accidents is better traffic infrastructure. It may be sufficient to expand the network of roads and to add lanes to existing motorways. Improved traffic flow would help decrease the accident rate. “Traffic engineers say it could be by as much as 40%, and I believe them,” says the new traffic police chief.

But Czechs fail to realize that they need to follow rules, even when they driving a car. And for that, there is another solution. Shortly after accepting his new position, Leoš Tržil attracted attention with his proposal to patrol pedestrians on crossings to ensure they are not jaywalking. The proposal was his reaction to recent statistics that showed that after giving pedestrians the right of way on crossings, the number of pedestrian deaths had increased. But why does he think pedestrians are the ones to blame? Statistics show that the majority of accidents involving pedestrians are caused by drivers. Only 24% of fatal road accidents this year were caused by pedestrians alone. The number of accidents where drivers failed to give right of way to pedestrians at a crosswalk has increased from the year 2000 (from 446 to 952). But even when taking these numbers into account Tržil maintains that it’s necessary to train pedestrians to properly cross the street. “We will focus on drivers too,” he says. “There exists a myth here about absolute right of way on crosswalks. We need to debunk that myth.”

“The numbers clearly show on which side the problem is and what the police should focus on,” says Jaroslav Hořín, a traffic expert who comments on the statistics for traffic accidents involving pedestrians. He says the problem is that Czechs fail to realise they need to follow rules, even when they’re behind the wheel. “You wouldn’t even think of stealing bread rolls at the supermarket,” says Hořín. “But we all go over the speed limit.” Driving practices only serve to confirm this statement. “I think we have so many car crashes here because everyone is racing to beat the clock,” says Aleš Černainský, who has been driving trams in Prague for 15 years and also trains tram drivers. “I tell them to stay calm at all costs and not to let themselves be affected by the aggressive behaviour of others.”

One voice

These days, municipalities whose town halls simply want to protect the lives of their citizens in any way possible are doing a significant share to help improve the situation. Mayors are pleased with the results of placing artificial barriers to slow down traffic on flat straight stretches of roads, as well as illuminated signs that inform drivers when they exceed the speed limit. But that is only a small part of how traffic works here.

Traffic experts agree that the only thing that will make drivers behave is tough repression, in combination with campaigns that show the effects of irresponsible driving. The problem is that every effort to introduce tougher measures or new campaigns has encountered resistance from Czech society. This is true, for example, of the point system, which was attacked even by former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek (like his successor Mirek Topolánek, he was prone to zooming along motorways at 200km/h with a cherry light on the roof of his car).

Giving pedestrians right of way on crosswalks also met with resistance and so did radars: Deputies passed a law that forbids private companies to measure speed on roads.

The information campaign BESIP “You will pay if you don’t think” that focuses on the high-risk group of drivers between the ages of 20 and 30. A series of clips that show the effect of traffic accidents has met with criticism from the Council for Radio and TV Broadcasting – even if, compared to similar clips abroad, they were quite tame. The council is afraid of the effect these clips could have on children and threatened to issue fines of CZK 10 million to stations that broadcast the videos without censoring the bloodiest scenes. “This defeats the purpose. The videos are supposed to show all the effects of accidents, so that drivers can see what could happen,” says traffic psychologist Martin Kořán.

But the dispute over these images brings some hope. The government council for road safety, which has 25 members – among them representatives from the Transportation Ministry, associations of professional drivers and deputies – has decided to support the clips. The Transportation Ministry must now persuade the media council to greenlight the clips. Even police chief Tržil supports the clips. “I think these videos should be broadcast in full. Even if they end up saving only 10 lives a year, they will have served a purpose,” he says. “This agreement is important,” says traffic expert Jaroslav Hořín. “Until now, the different groups tended to oppose one another. Now they’re finally starting to cooperate.”

Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.

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