VILNIUS - Lithuania is the most dangerous place to drive in Europe. Car crashes killed 739 Lithuanians in 2007 's a death rate of 21.9 per 100,000 people. To put this in context, if this death rate were repeated in a country as populated as, for example, France, this would kill 17,500 people per year.
The problem is so serious that the Lithuanian Statistics Department has cited it as one of the root causes of Vilnius' 20 percent population discrepancy between men and women, and experts in all corners are blaming speeding and alcohol for the deaths of over 700 Lithuanians per year for the last five years. Since 1980, yearly road deaths have numbered below 700 only seven times.
Police are trying to deal with the problem. They report that 2008's tighter traffic laws have reduced the number of accidents. Significantly higher fines and new vehicle-confiscation laws have got people on their toes.
Rytis Vosylius, Chief Specialist of the Lithuanian Police Traffic Supervision Service, said that fewer people are dying because of the new measures.
"This year more than 100 fewer people died because of the tighter penalties and confiscation of transport," he said.
The statistics back him up. In the first six months of 2008, compared to the same period in 2007, there has been a 19.8 percent reduction is road accidents and 36.6 percent reduction in deaths. Though encouraging, it's well short of the European Union's goal of halving the number of road deaths in the country.
Egidijus Skrodenis, head of the Traffic Safety Division at the Lithuanian Roads Administra-tion, said that although there have been changes to the law, it will still be an uphill battle to curb road deaths. "We have two problems: drunk driving and speeding. People just don't follow the rules. It is the mentality of our people to do that," he said.
There are those who agree that this is an ingrown problem. Martynas Gircys is a graduate student who was born in Lithuania and moved to the United States when he was eight, then returned to Lithuania at 23. He thinks the mentality of his countrymen is leading them to kill themselves.
"Aggressive driving, in my opinion, [is the cause]. Even if I have the right of way, I still take care to watch out for cars merging from another road. A lot of people don't. You can't assume that everyone observes the rules. Once you're seriously injured, the fact that someone else is at fault will do little to console you," Gircys said.
Vehicle confiscation laws stand as a major deterrent for offenders. A car can be confiscated when the driver is cited for drunk driving twice in the same year. This is in addition to heavy fines of up to 435 euros. The blood alcohol limit for drivers is 0.4 milligrams per milliliter in Lithuania. This limit is halved for inexperienced drivers or those in large vehicles. Vosylius said that there are more checks for drunk drivers now than ever before and it will only become more comprehensive.
Many crashes occur at high speeds. Fines for speeding have also increased significantly this year; exceeding the speed limit by more than 50 kilometers per hour now carries a fine of up to 435 euros and a driver's license suspension for one to three months, or administrative arrest for seven days and disqualification from driving for six months.
Gircys thinks this is much too lenient and looks to other European countries for new measures. "I've heard of schemes in the Netherlands and Finland where the size of the fine is proportional to the offender's income. There has to be some way to reign in the 'big shots' who use their money to avoid responsibility," he said.
Police have already installed 12 new speed cameras this year, with another 150 planned before 2009. Nine new mobile speed camera devices have also been purchased.
Compounding the problems of speeding and alcohol, very few Lithuanian adults wear seat belts. One woman thought the idea of wearing seat belts in the back seat of the car was a joke. She replied, "Nobody does that 's it's only for children."
The previously low fines for not wearing a belt may have furthered the notion that seat belts are not important. The fine for not wearing a belt before 2008 could have been as low as seven euros 's if the police bother to stop you for it. Maximum fines now stand at 87 euros and a one month driving disqualification.
Gircys thinks that wearing a seat belt is a good habit. "For the type of accidents that seem most likely, yes, [seat belts help]. A friend of mine had an accident where his car went tumbling 30 meters through the air. Apparently in such cases it's better not to be buckled up. Hopefully I will never be in such a situation," he said.
Skrodenis told The Baltic Times about the seat belt situation in Lithuania. He explained that the nation's roads administration has instituted a seat belt education program in city centers in which a worker drives adult and child passengers around a few corners, with and without the seat belts, and asks the occupants to note the differences. Skrodenis said this hands-on education is important. "In Lithuania we now need to use a seat belt in the back of the car. This has just become law last year," he said.
Another victory for the government has been the utilization of TV commercials over the last year, one of which included a graphic depiction of a child in a car crash. "This was effective. It was one of the best clips on television. It really got people thinking and talking. Children are asking their parents to put on their seat belts," Skrodenis said.
He admits that the infrastructure in Lithuania needs to be improved and explained that they have a strict regimen to stick to. There will be a self-initiated audit of the infrastructure next year by experts to assess whether they have reached their goals.