RIGA - A wave of car accidents toward the end of 2004 nearly placed Lithuania at the top of the Baltic's road fatality list. And although Latvia still retains this ignominious title, its number of vehicle-related deaths as a proportion of cars registered has fallen considerably in recent years.
Last year 749 people died on Lithuanian roads, up 5.6 percent year-on-year, while corresponding increases in Estonia and Latvia were 2.9 percent and 2.6 percent respectively.Lithuania took an unusual blow during the last two months of 2004, when some 171 people perished in traffic-related accidents, placing the country just behind Latvia in terms of deaths per 100,000 residents.
Since gaining independence, Latvia has consistently held the worst road fatality record in Europe 's and one of the worst in the world. But despite an increasing number of registered vehicles, statistics show that the country has made considerable progress in combating the epidemic of road-related deaths.
As Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons explained, "If we compare [today] with the early '90s, when every year almost a thousand people died on the roads, and then with the mid-'90s, when there was about 600's800 [deaths], and with the past couple of years, when the average was about 400 's 500, then overall improvement statistics are consistent and positive, especially if you take into consideration that there are three times more cars."
Last year a slew of high-profile accidents in Latvia catalyzed public opinion, with the leading newspaper, Diena, devoting a small black box on its front page that tallied the rising death toll. But as a ratio to the number of cars, the statistics show a different picture. If in 2001 the number of auto-related deaths per 1,000 registered vehicles was 0.66, then last year it was 0.57. (See table below.)
Meanwhile, the ratio of deaths per 1,000 vehicles in Estonia was 0.39 percent in 2001 and 0.29 percent in 2004, the number in Lithuania was 0.54 percent and 0.46 percent respectively.
But these fractions don't warrant a breath of relief. Though the total number killed has dropped, the accident count has increased in tandem with the rising tide of automobiles. In the past two years, the number of traffic accidents in Latvia has increased almost by 14 percent, whereas the number of vehicle registrations was up by 10 percent (see table).
Despite more wheels on the streets, observers still insist that the high number of accidents is due to drivers' negligent attitude toward pedestrians, traffic rules and even their own safety.
"In most cases in Latvia, I think it's the culture of our drivers," Jekabsons told The Baltic Times. "It's simply aggressive driving. No respect for your neighbor, no respect for the rules, and so on." As he went on to explain, "We talked to some senior police officers in Estonia, and their [road casualty] statistics are better than ours. Yet, as we were surprised to learn, the road quality in Estonia is worse than Latvia's."
True enough, there's little wonder that so many accidents occur given the condition of Baltic roads. Outside of Riga, for instance, the highways are riddled with crater-size potholes, forcing many drivers, weary of having to buy a new set of shock absorbers, to maneuver around them 's and often straight into oncoming traffic. The A6 highway outside of Daugavpils is so hammered by potholes that one would think a nearby artillery platoon used it as an impact range.
In addition, many regional roads lack essentials such as road barriers, headlight reflectors and electric lamps.
"I think that both highway maintenance companies and drivers must assume responsibility for the numerous traffic accidents on Latvia's roads," Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said in an interview to Radio SWH in the beginning of January. In his opinion, the problem with road maintenance is as much management as finance.
State road officials disagreed, suggesting the government was paying its dues in full.
"I can't question our prime minister, but I can say that 16.9 million lats (24.1 million euros) are needed to meet the requirements of the Cabinet of Ministers regarding state road maintenance during the winter season and to increase the maintenance level on Latvia's main highways, which is 7.5 million lats more than the government is ready to provide out of the state budget for 2005," Daiga Mezapuke, head of Latvian State Roads' marketing department, said last month.
She reiterated that the driving culture on Latvian roads is terrible: in December, 404 drivers were caught speeding at levels of 180 kilometers per hour on the Riga 's Liepaja highway.
Estonian road safety officials are also discouraged by the condition of their roads. "We cannot actually be proud of the traffic environment in Estonia," said Raivo Aeg, head of the Central Law Enforcement Police (the police unit dealing with public order protection and traffic), "I mean the condition of roads and the effectiveness of road signs and markings."
Lithuanians see the situation in a slightly different light. As Gintaras Aleksandravicius, deputy chief of the Traffic Supervision Department in Lithuania, said, "Our roads are comparatively good. The main explanation why we have so many road accidents is the flawed driving culture."
Despite strict punishments and costly fines, drivers neither obey speed limits nor the requirement to fasten their seat belts, he explained. Speeding is the most frequent cause of accidents, and drunk driving makes up one-sixth the total.
"We have too many cars in Lithuania, and the situation has become unbearable 's every third resident in the country owns a car," said Aleksandravicius.
Naturally, the large increase in cars and accidents has affected Baltic insurance agencies. Gunita Steinberga, PR manager at Balta, an insurance market leader, said that the number of road accidents and insurance payouts increased considerably last year. "In 2003 Octa (compulsory car insurance) claims reached 3.6 million lats, but in 2004 they increased by 4.7 percent and reached 3.8 million lats," she added.
Buckle up, buckle down
If, as nearly all top road officials in the Baltics agree, the high number of fatalities is due to lousy driving culture, then what do the governments intend to do about it?
"The president is very concerned about the country's road condition," Aiva Rozenberga, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's press-secretary told LETA after the Riga-Moscow bus crash on Dec. 31, where nine people were killed. The president referred to that single tragedy as the culmination of what took place on Latvia's roads in 2004.
"Vike-Freiberga admits that new creative decisions are imperative for improving road safety. It is very necessary to improve the driver's training and youth's behavior on roads," added the president's press secretary.
According to Jekabsons, efforts have already begun to straighten out the country's warped driving culture.
"First of all, there's legislation. There's a change of law in process. So if you are caught twice driving without a license, you go to prison. If you are caught drinking and driving, you go to prison," he said. "We have the point system, so the next [amendment to the] law would say that the more points you have will go toward your insurance. So all of a sudden, instead of 50 lats for your insurance policy, you pay 250, for example."
In regard to pedestrian safety, the Interior Ministry has initiated a law that children's school bags must have reflectors. In Estonia such a law already exists.
Along with the Education Ministry, Jekabsons has introduced video clips that he intends to show in schools. "Because the younger generation, especially young people and children, is somehow deaf to this preaching, if you see a picture with someone dead 's they are graphic, but not too bloody 's it is very effective," he said. "Showing the images in schools has an impact. The most important thing is to go from the general to the very personal, from philosophizing and theorizing to making a specific action plan."