RIGA - Ten pedestrians were killed in road accidents in Latvia last weekend 's the highest number ever recorded in one week - prompting the immediate introduction of more stringent pedestrian fines by Latvia's Road Police. Chief of Road Police Edmunds Zivtins told reporters that he hadn't seen such a deadly weekend in his entire career and that the new fines were crucial to preventing a repeat of the tragedy.
According to the newly proposed regulations, which Zivtins announced on Dec. 9, pedestrians caught walking without safety reflectors or jaywalking will be fined up to 20 lats (29 euros), as compared with the current maximum fine of 5 lats. Bikers caught without reflectors will be fined the same amount.
"What's most important to us is that this new system is implemented as soon as possible," the police chief said.
Zivtins said two factors most likely contributed to last week's startling number of deaths: pedestrians walking along busy roads without safety reflectors, and the onset of darker winter days this month. This year's mild weather is a contributor, he added, explaining that without snow it's harder to see people in the dark.
"Last January, 12 pedestrians were hit by cars on Latvian roads because there was no snow during those dark winter days," Zivtins told the NovoNews agency. "The same was true for December 2004 - another month without snow 's when 74 deaths were registered, 40 of them pedestrians."
Police are also cracking down on cyclists riding while under the influence of alcohol. Under the new law, if a biker registers 0.5 's 1 promiles on a breathalyzer, he or she will receive a 20 lat fine. There is currently no punishment for "drunk biking."
Most important, the chief said, is that pedestrians wear neon reflectors while walking along busy streets in the dark. Despite a nationwide campaign promoting pedestrian road safety 's for both children and adults 's many people don't take the warnings seriously, Zivtins said.
"We have launched several safety campaigns for youth, with obligatory road safety lessons in schools. However, older people often ignore our advisories," Zivtins said, adding that the majority of pedestrians hit are above age 40. "Just imagine, a young officer advises an older person to wear his reflector, and gets the sharp reply 'Leave me alone, I know what I'm doing.'"
He continued, "For more than two years now, we have been very indulgent to pedestrians, distributing free reflectors and giving out warnings rather than too many fines. But now, since our advice clearly hasn't been heard, we have to act more strictly 's we must raise the fines."
Meanwhile, Latvia's Road Police have urged teachers to highlight road safety rules and regulations in class 's especially now that winter has arrived.
As part of the government's campaign, an obligatory road safety curriculum was introduced in all Latvian schools at the end of 2005. Each year teachers are required by law to educate children on general pedestrian safety laws and precautions.
According to Evita Macelevica, an eighth grade teacher at Riga's Teika High School, the program has been a high priority for the past several years.
"Every autumn we remind children how to properly behave on the streets 's to wear reflectors, to always cross the streets where marked and to be wary of traffic." Macelevica said.
"The school campaign involves both teachers and students. For example, our older students teach the younger children safety rules. They make posters together and even design their own reflectors, so kids will be more willing to wear them," the teacher added.
In her opinion, children have been especially receptive to general safety precautions and police warnings. "I think the situation is getting much better in Riga. As a driver, I've noticed that children are really wearing their reflectors and obeying crosswalk laws."
Macelevica added that, despite last week's alarming death count, Latvia's road safety awareness has improved in recent years 's on both the part of drivers and pedestrians.
"The driving culture in Latvia has improved greatly since police introduced stricter speeding and drunk driving violations," she said. "Years ago, drivers were very careless. Today I think they use more precaution, and keep their eyes out for pedestrians."
Yet statistically the picture looks grim. According to a 2004 Eurostat report, Latvia has the highest rate of road related deaths in Europe - with 222 deaths per 1 million inhabitants.
Worse, the Baltic state has a notoriously high number of public figures with frightening driving records 's atrocious speeding tickets, drunk driving and even manslaughter.
Just last month, Parliamentary Speaker Indulis Emsis' chauffeur was seen driving at least 130 kilometers per hour in a 90 km/h zone, according to the Baltic News Service.
Emsis replied to accusations by saying he "did not notice whether his car was speeding."
Earlier this fall, former Prime Minister Einars Repse hit and killed a pedestrian while driving along the Riga-Daugavpils highway. The New Era member subsequently pulled out of the October 2006 pre-election campaign.
Repse avoided serious charges in court, as the victim had not been wearing a reflector and was "staggering half naked" in the middle of the road, according to police. It was later proven that the 26-year-old man had been drinking.
A year prior, 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.