• 2007-11-07

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

Alexander, a Riga taxi driver, has an interesting solution to a perennial Baltic problem. In order to curtail the number of fatalities on the three countries' roads, he says the minimal driving age should be raised to 25. "People younger than 25 have nothing but air in their heads, and it shows in the way they drive," he says. "When they're behind the wheel, they think about everything but driving. They have no sense of responsibility."

It is, of course, an emotional response, but when one continually reads about the frequency of automobile-related fatalities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, emotion becomes instinctual. In one October day in Latvia, five people died in road accidents. In Estonia a man smashed into a tree so hard that the car split in two. A speed-biker in Lithuania, racing at nearly 200 kilometers per hour, hit an automobile with such intensity that the car flipped over twice. The motorcyclist exploded like a tomato.
The situation on our roads is increasingly grim 's to the point that the gutters are oozing blood and tragedy 's and too often the victims were born in 1984, 1986, and so on. Adolescents have gone amok on the country roads and city streets.

Taking a step back, the reasons for the sudden increase in road deaths is not surprising. Vibrant economies mean more cars; the roads haven't improved a bit, in some cases have even worsened; and the same Soviet driving culture is proving hard to break. Baltic politicians are regularly stopped for exceeding the speed limit.
Statistics-wise, it's official: Balts are the worst drivers in the European Union. The European Traffic Safety Council announced in October that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia top the list in terms of worst safety records in the 27-member block. A surge in deaths over the past two years has given Lithuania the ignominy as the state with the worst drivers 's with a death toll of 223 people per one million inhabitants. The previous leader, Latvia, boasts 177 deaths per one million residents. By comparison, the Swedes 's some of the best drivers in the EU 's registered only 49 fatalities per million, European Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot said during a recent visit to Latvia. In all three Baltic states, the 2007 automobile-related death toll is up year-on-year.

Can anything be done? In its report, the European Traffic Safety Council said the nations with the best road records achieved success by combating drunken driving, cracking down on speedsters and ensuring the use of seat belts. France, for instance, accomplished an enormous reduction in its death-rate by using speed control cameras. Latvian police should have long ago done the same on the road between Riga and Jurmala 's a racing strip for reckless bankers and businessmen, not to mention the occasional government worker.
But these measures might not be enough. Drastic situations require drastic solutions, and perhaps the Baltic states might want to consider a variety of measures that, while seeming draconian, could be justified to save lives. Revoking licenses and automobiles is one idea. Another is a hotline for complaints about reckless drivers; two or more reports about one driver would justify taking action. (Public flogging comes to mind, as do a number of other effective medieval methods.) And let's not kid ourselves: improved roads will NOT save lives. They are only a temptation to drive faster; better roads tend to breed breakneck dragsters.

And yes, perhaps the minimal driving age should also be raised. It'd be a shame, of course, for well-reared adolescents who would make for decent drivers, but such are the sacrifices that some might have to endure if the Baltics are ever to approach the EU average road-fatality rate.