Road fatalities reach epidemic proportions

  • 2004-07-28
  • By Aaron Eglitis, RIGA
The sharp increase in the number of road-related deaths over recent weeks in Latvia, which already possesses the dubious distinction of having the worst auto fatality ratio per-capita in Europe, has shocked both the government and the public and opened discussions on ways to prevent the situation from worsening.

During the week of July 12 - 18, 16 people died in road accidents, with 10 deaths over the weekend alone. Officials said it was the deadliest weekend the country has ever seen. Worse, the number seems to be climbing daily, prompting the daily paper Diena to print a year-to-date death toll on its front page. As of July 27 the tally (which the paper insists is preliminary) was 255. The upswing in deaths alarmed Prime Minister Indulis Emsis, who suggested that the root of the problem lay in the large number of older cars on the road. The prime minister added that while police are working to reduce the number of road accidents, they have yet to produce results. He added that a change in the public's attitude was needed, especially among those whom he dubbed "highway hooligans."The head of the state traffic police, Visvaldis Pukite, has called for more cops on the highways, while Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons has proposed a number of different strategies to make the highways safer, his spokesman Krists Leiskalns said.According to Leiskalns, many accidents are due to excessive speeding, drunk driving, inexperienced drivers and a lack of driving education. He said that many of the people involved in the auto accidents were between the ages of 18 and 25 and that since the early 1990s, there has been little or no driving education. No less important is the fact that there are more than twice as many cars in Latvia now than there were in the early '90s. And the growing number is far more than the country's highways can presently cope with.To combat the epidemic, traffic police will increase their random driver license identification checks and use hidden speed radars to catch speedsters, Leiskalns said. The Interior Ministry has used ad campaigns in the past, but those have apparently had no lasting effect. And the ministry said it did not have sufficient funds for a sustained television campaign.Campaigns aside, some argue that the number of deaths on Latvia's roads is first and foremost a reflection of poor driving culture. Even government officials have been clocked driving way beyond the limit. The car of Juris Radzevics, minister of education and science, was recorded driving at 140 kilometers per hour. Even 48 police officers were punished for traffic violations in the first half of this year."Fifty percent of the drivers do not wear seatbelts, although this is up from 30 percent a few years ago," Aldis Lama, a statistician at the Road Traffic Safety Directorate, said. "It still needs to improve."The exact causes of the country's high per capita fatality rate are difficult to pinpoint, said Lama. Many of those injured or killed are pedestrians, bike or motorcycle riders. In many cases, they become unwitting causalities due to poorly lit roads at night.While the number of fatalities decreased from 222 in the first six months of 2002 to 172 in the first half of 2003, they have begun to climb again and hit 207 from January to June of this year. The overall number of accidents has skyrocketed from 17,888 in 2002 to 23,778 this year.