RIGA - The death toll on the dangerous highways of Latvia continues to mount, with each new week bringing new highway horror stories to the headlines. The leading daily Diena used its entire front page on Oct. 19 to list the names of the 380 people that have died so far this year due to traffic accidents on a pitch black background reminiscent of a headstone for the Vietnam War Memorial.
The trick apparently struck a chord in the government, as Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons later that day called all traffic police on holiday back to duty to ensure safety on the roads. It was not immediately known how many traffic cops were on vacation, but head of the traffic police Visvaldis Pukitis told the Baltic News Service that this time of year was not popular for taking holiday.
Traffic deaths have long been a cause for public discussion, as Latvia's roads have been among the most dangerous in Europe per capita for years. Public concern and continual media coverage have had little effect on what many consider to be a national epidemic.
Jekabsons has reportedly requested a short-term plan from the state police, to be ready by Oct. 22, to make the streets safer and slow the steady rise of road fatalities. Things such as drunk driving, seat belt usage, an information campaign and protecting passersby are to be tackled in the plan.
Making the police work more hours or raising fines levied for speeding were also discussed, yet state police chief Janis Zascirinskis said that police have already collected 5 million lats (7.4 million euros) this year in fines.
As far as pushing traffic police harder, he responded by saying, "I can't work them 24 hours a day."
Jekabsons was quoted as saying that "no slack will be given to any level of police officers, and if anyone can't do the job they are given, their suitability for the post will be considered."
Yet only recently a photographer took a picture of a police car on the morning of Oct. 13 driving by while another car was burning in the middle of the road. The photograph was shown in the news on television, and police said they would investigate.
According to Zascirinskis, despite the high numbers this year, they are much better than the nearly 1,000 road fatalities in 1993. Even the statistics for the past four years have hovered between 499 - 553 deaths.
However, since last year the number of fatalities increased by 40 in the first nine months.
Even former Prime Minister Einars Repse was caught speeding, doing 134 kilometers in a 90 kph zone earlier this month. Later, when driving the editor of a woman's magazine on Oct. 13 in the countryside, his jeep tipped over, although neither was injured in the accident.
Asked if Jekabsons would have to step down over the mounting fatalities, Prime Minister Indulis Emsis said, "Four Jekabsons on the streets will not change the situation."