RIGA - Just hours after a Sept. 19 report found that Latvia once again boasts the deadliest roads in the European Union, former Prime Minister Einars Repse struck and killed a pedestrian in central Latvia. Repse was driving his Honda CRV late in the evening near the village of Koknese when he hit a 26-year-old man who had been "walking half-naked in the middle of the road," according to police.
Speaking to reporters the next day, Repse, who heads the right-wing New Era party, described the accident as "unavoidable" since a truck in the opposite lane prevented him from swerving out of the way. State police said the driver of the truck corroborated Repse's statement.
The former prime minister, who had been active on the campaign trail prior to the tragedy, said he had not been under the influence of alcohol. Police said he passed a breath-test on the spot.
The incident occurred the same day that Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency, released its annual report of passenger car ownership and fatalities in the 25-nation bloc. Latvia managed to maintain the ignominy of having the highest road-related death-rate, or 222 per 1 million inhabitants, according to 2004 data.
Lithuania, whose roads have become increasingly dangerous over the past couple years, was right behind its Baltic neighbor with 218 accident-related fatalities per 1 million residents. Estonia, which has much better roads than either Latvia or Lithuania, registered 126 deaths, while the safest streets in the EU (barring Malta) are in the Netherlands. There the road-related deaths amounted to 49 per 1 million inhabitants.
Tellingly, neither the tragedy involving Repse nor the Eurostat report sparked a discussion in Latvian society about the situation on the nation's roads, as media continued to be preoccupied with the wiretapping scandal and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's candidacy for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations.
This is worrying given the road-violations register reads like a who's-who list in Latvia. A year prior to last week's tragedy another New Era MP, Edgars Jaunups, resigned his position after a gross speeding violation, and in December 2004, Maris Verpakovskis, a soccer star, was fined for speeding.
Repse, who is a reputed thrill-seeker and licensed helicopter pilot, was fined for speeding two years ago and forced to apologize. Police clocked him driving 134 kilometers per hour in a 90 kilometer zone.
In Repse's most recent incident, officers suggested that the pedestrian may have been under the influence of alcohol, given his behavior.
After the tragedy Repse, who earlier this year resigned as defense minister and pulled his party out of the ruling coalition, announced that he would cease participation in the pre-election campaign. "I can't think about politics right now," he told journalists.
The former central banker, who was prime minister from the end of 2002 to the beginning of 2004, is New Era's nominee for the prime minister's position. The elections will be held on Oct. 7.
According to the Eurostat report, Latvia and Lithuania lead the EU in terms of growth of passenger vehicles per 100,000 residents. The number of registered cars in Lithuania and Latvia grew 167 and 142 percent respectively from 1990 to 2004.