Keeping your distance - or not - on Czech roads

The case of a Czech driver who apparently ‘punished’ other drivers for overtaking too slowly on the motorway has highlighted a troubling phenomenon in the country: the general lack of awareness of keeping a safe distance, especially at high speeds. Road safety experts point out that ‘keeping a safe distance’ isn’t even defined under Czech law, unlike many other European countries, where failing to do so can constitute a criminal offence.

Aleš Trpišovský's car, photo: CTK
The face of this man – businessman Aleš Trpišovský – is now known to households across the country, following an incident on the main D1 motorway between Prague and Brno. Police arrested Mr Trpišovský after another driver, travelling with a young child, described how Mr Trpišovský had deliberately slammed on the brakes in front of him, coming to a complete halt in the fast lane. Mr Trpišovský – driving a powerful Mercedes ML car – braked so hard the second driver was unable to avoid driving into the back of him. Both drivers escaped unhurt, and damage to the two cars was minimal.

The driver said he had carefully been overtaking another vehicle, driving cautiously on an icy motorway in temperatures of minus eight degrees, when Mr Trpišovský came up behind him at speeds estimated at high speed. He was apparently enraged at being stuck behind him in the fast lane, and the incident that followed was clearly a form of punishment, he said.

Mr Trpišovský was soon being described in the Czech media as a ‘road pirate’, after it emerged he had been involved in a similar incident earlier in the day and had actually been convicted – and later amnestied – for the same behaviour 13 years ago. Much attention has also been focused on his illegal personalised number plates.

Aleš Trpišovský, photo: TV Prima
Speaking to TV Prima, however, Mr Trpišovský denied driving dangerously, and said he had been forced to brake sharply to avoid a third vehicle in front of him. The driver behind him, he said, was the real pirate for failing to stop in time:

“If my mistake was that someone drove into the back of me, then I’m sorry – if that man says he had a young child in the car, why didn’t he keep his distance? Why didn’t he react? Why didn’t he brake sooner? I don’t know. The police haven’t even interviewed me yet. I’d like to know where the other guy is. Why he was allowed to just drive off, whereas I was taken into custody.”

The state prosecutor’s office has since halted the criminal proceedings against Aleš Trpišovský, citing irregularities in the police investigation, but for many Czech road users, the case is wearily familiar. Indeed just days later, this amateur footage emerged on YouTube, showing an almost identical incident of road rage.

Part of the problem, says road safety expert Robert Šťastný, is the widespread lack of awareness in this country of the importance of maintaining a safe distance, especially on the motorway, something that contributes to thousands of accidents each year:

“I think the problem of Czech drivers is knowledge. Nobody is explaining to them why safe distance should be respected, and how to do it. Czech drivers, they don’t know that for example if they are driving only one second behind the car in front of them, in case of a problem on the road, they will not be able to react. I think the competent organisations should explain to them why safe distance is so important, and show concrete ways how to realise it.”

The most recent incident followed another appalling lack of judgement – on the same motorway – earlier this year. Another businessman, also driving a powerful car, forced a female driver off the road for overtaking too slowly in the fast lane. Her car overturned and came to rest in a field; miraculously she and her passenger escaped with minor injuries. The man who caused it was sentenced to five years in prison; a sign perhaps that the Czech authorities are beginning to take more seriously cases of naked aggression on the roads.