Are Czech pedestrian crossings safe?

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By Pavla Horakova

If you ever come to the Czech Republic, watch out when you try to cross the street at a pedestrian crossing. It may take a while before any of the speeding drivers stop for you and let you cross. And that is despite the fact the since January 2001 the right of way for pedestrians has been stipulated by the law.

Just like all other Czech legislation - the traffic laws are being harmonised with EU standards, too. The first step in that process was taken in 1997 when the speed limit in residential areas was reduced from 60 to 50 km/h. Jaroslav Heinrich is a road safety manager from the Transport Research Centre in Brno. He told me about an interesting experiment his centre had carried out in connection with the new law...

"So we chose some places both in the cities and in some smaller cities and we tried to measure the average speed of by-passing drivers at the same place. Once approximately one month before this law, and the second days two weeks to one month after the law came into force and we saw the speed on the same sections decreased really approximately by about 10 kilometres on each type of the sections. This decrease was influenced not only by the new law but also thanks to the much stronger enforcement provided by the police and also much broader campaign in the media."

That was in 1997, but how long did good behaviour on the roads last? Jaroslav Heinrich again.

"But after several months we saw in the database from the police that the accidents in urban areas were raising again, so we tried to go one year after with our laser cameras and measured the speed once more. And we saw the things we expected. The driving speed in the places was nearly the same as before the law came into force."

So it would seem that Czech drivers break the speed limit simply because there is no one to stop and fine them. Michaela Valentova is a member of the non-governmental environmental organisation Prague Mothers. One of the causes they support is more protection for pedestrians, especially children. Prague Mothers also think the police could do more to enforce the laws, as the number of accidents on pedestrian crossings has risen sharply since the new law was introduced.

"The role of the police has not been clear in this society up to now. We are convinced that the police should fine the traffic crimes, fine the drivers. They are full of understanding for the drivers. We would expect that the police would pay attention especially at the places close to schools and on the ways to schools and we were slightly disappointed that the police didn't do it in the measure we would expect."

Punishing offenders is not enough. Mr Heinrich from the Traffic Research Centre mentioned earlier that in 1997 the media campaign was effective in alerting people to the upcoming changes. Michaela Valentova agrees that the role of the media is vital.

"Before the new law came into force, we spoke with some representatives of Prague and pointed out that there was no campaign warning not only the pedestrians but the drivers first. We succeeded in publishing a huge advertising in the city newpaper. There was a picture drawn by children, a dead man on a pedestrian crossing. But it was the only success we had in the campaign for warning what the new law would bring to the people, the drivers and also the pedestrians."

The group Prague Mothers has had a longstanding dispute with the Prague town hall concerning traffic in the city.

"Really astonishing for us was the reaction of the town-hall. They started to destroy some pedestrian crossings. They declared there are too many pedestrian crossings in the city and too many pedestrian crossings slow down the traffic. And it's dangerous for the drivers because they have to stop."

Here is a view from behind the steering wheel. Milos Havelka drives every day to his office in the centre of Prague.

"Now the drivers should be very careful because new regulations for some pedestrians mean that they are free to enter anywhere, anytime and cross the street without taking care for coming cars. It's possible to see some elderly pedestrians entering the zebra crossing without looking at the traffic light. They expect the drivers are gentle and observe all regulations. But unfortunately, they don't understand the existing conditions, for example ice or dark sides of the street."

Michaela Valentova says the fact that people interpret the law differently may be partially to blame.

"After one year, we can evaluate the new law, and there were more pedestrians killed on the pedestrian crossings and we think it's a result of a lack of work with the public and also a certain relativisation of this law, because sometimes the people are told that the new law doesn't mean in fact the priority for pedestrians absolutely. It means only that under certain condition the pedestrians may have the right. And if it is explained this way, many drivers don't respect it."

However the driver's point of view may differ from those of environmentalists, Mr Havelka agrees that more should be done in terms of prevention

"As for me, it's the fault of organisation of people's education, from the school and of course also in the press, radio and so on. Because, as I said, people must understand each other."

Michaela Valentova from Prague Mothers thinks that even 12 years after the fall of the old regime, Czech society is still suffering from growing pains.

"We are afraid it would take years until the society would recover from the previous period, where the people didn't feel responsibility for the society. People are perhaps too selfish and they don't respect the weaker participants of the traffic."

Sociologists say driving habits are symbolic of the cultural, moral and legal climate of a nation. Laws alone will not make Czech roads safer. Road safety must start in the classroom - and the family, of course - and Czech drivers must learn that driving safely is a social - and not just legal - obligation.