• 2001-06-07
Latvia is famous for its drivers. "Many are rude, death-defying and willing to run down innocent pedestrians without blinking. After a few days in Latvia, it should come as no surprise to you that this country has one of the highest traffic death tolls in the world," the Tallinn-based Baltic City Paper claimed recently.

And the statistics really are dreadful. Frequently, people are injured at zebra crossings and junctions when the lights are in their favor. But despite several hundred deaths per year the authorities have not realized that Latvia's driving culture is a serious problem.

At 33, the number of children injured in traffic accidents in Riga reached a new, disgraceful high last month. Thirty-six schools in Riga have demanded that the city establish traffic lights to protect kids hurrying to classes. But at a recent public meeting, traffic officials said only three sets of lights would be erected this summer. Additional lights would hold up traffic, they explained.

But some disagree. Recently a Danish architect, working on the reconstruction of Riga Central Railway Station, suggested other traffic calming measures such as sleeping policemen - humps in the road surface which slow drivers down, thus increasing safety for pedestrians. But as far as Latvian traffic police officials are concerned, those who suggest such common Western European solutions are talking double Dutch. Drivers would use the humps as spring-boards for launching their cars onto the sidewalks, they say.

In fact, zebra crossings are dangerous.

In the words of Riga city traffic department chief Ivars Zarumba, speaking to the newspaper Diena on June 6: "Sometimes it is safer if there is no crossing. Then the person becomes careful as a rabbit - he doesn't have the deceptive feeling of security."

Instead the plan is that special traffic wardens will help children in Riga cross the street outside school. Pensioners may even be hired for the purpose.

But the real question - why Latvia's uncivilized drivers break speed restrictions and refuse to let pedestrians cross the street at crossings - is never asked.

The speed limit in Latvian towns is 50 kilometers per hour, 90 kilometers per hour on the open road. But there is an unwritten rule that the police won't punish drivers until they are more than 10 kilometers per hour over the limit. So City Paper is right when it claims that the speed limit is 60 kilometer per hour in cities.

There is one crossing in Riga where the pedestrian is king - even trams will stop to let you cross into the old town between the Freedom Monument and McDonalds.

But for the most part Riga's pedestrians can only wonder when their city will become like those European capitals where the rights of pedestrians to cross the street in special places are observed by drivers and mutual politeness is a must.

Recently, in the Polish city of Krakow, a tram driver was surprised at the looks of astonishment he got from a group of Latvian tourists, who were amazed when he stopped to let them cross. But if he came to Riga, he would probably understand.