Despite pledge, highways authority slow to remove roadside billboards

Two months ago, the Czech highways authority promised it would end billboard advertising along the country’s main motorways, criticised as dangerous by road safety specialists. It pledged to remove a total of 440 ads within the first quarter of 2011 but it hasn’t moved to do so yet.

Czechs may have long grown accustomed to roadside billboards on major roads but few would agree they were attractive. Worse, road safety specialists estimate they are responsible – directly or indirectly – for many needless deaths each year. Earlier I spoke to Josef Mikulík of the Transport Research Centre in Brno who told me the sooner the billboards came down, the better.

“I think that there is no doubt that billboards along motorways are dangerous and we are practically the only country in Europe with this problem. First of all, it’s a direct danger for drivers who lose control and hit the billboard construction. There are no concrete statistics, but the basic estimation is that it is about 10 people annually. Now, if 750 people are killed on Czech roads, 10 doesn’t seem high but these are wasted lives.”

Basically you are saying these are completely needless accidents...

“Absolutely needless. The other aspect is the indirect danger from billboards: if you’re paying attention to the message, you’re not focussing on what’s ahead. Even two seconds, seemingly nothing, can make a huge difference. If you’re travelling at 130 kilometres an hour two seconds means 70 metres and in that time anything can happen: the car in front of you can brake, an unexpected obstacle can appear. In other European countries this is properly acknowledged and that is the reason you don’t see roadside billboards there.”

This is supposed to have begun to change: back in November the Czech Road and Motorway Directorate pledged to remove more than 400 signs within the first three months of 2011. On Tuesday the head of the bureau, Jiří Švorc, told Czech Radio the authority would keep to its promise, but suggested that the problem was more complex than simply physically removing the signs: what was needed was to work out the details in legal contracts going back to the early 1990s. Under Czech law billboards are defined as a structure and in a number of cases their removal is complicated. According to Josef Mikulík that is the main reason this task – discussed far longer than just the last few months – has dragged on for years. Josef Mikulík:

“Most of the billboards are owned by companies that are very professional in marketing, which came in the 1990s and perhaps offered an interesting price and it was in their interest to have good guarantees the billboards would work for some time. I imagine that from a legal point-of-view the contracts at re very well-done and that it is difficult to abolish these contracts and this is the reason the whole process has taken so long. If there could be adopted a very clear law concerning existing billboards I think it could help. But under the current circumstances I think that the best we can hope for is that no new billboards are added.”