Lower House decides to clamp down on reckless drivers with point system

In about a year's time, drivers in the Czech Republic could face much stricter road controls and new traffic regulations. After a two year battle, the Transport Ministry has managed to push through a proposal to introduce a points system. If approved by the Senate and signed by the President, it could come into effect on July 1, 2006.

Prague's Vinohradska Street in front of the radio building is one of the city's busier streets and in just five minutes I've spotted seven drivers who were not wearing their seat belts and twenty-five who failed to stop for pedestrians at a zebra crossing. Under the point system that was approved by the lower house of parliament on Wednesday drivers will gain points for every violation. Once they've accumulated twelve demerit points, they lose their licence for a year.

So long then to the days when people would have a beer after lunch and then get behind the wheel; if caught with an alcohol blood content of over 0.3 percent, they would immediately gain 7 points. Or, exceed the speed limit twice and then fail to wear a seat belt or get caught talking on the phone while on the road, and say good-bye to your licence for a whole twelve months. So, how do the country's drivers feel about this?

Man 1: "I think it's unfair that the police will be able to decide how high the fine will be. It is discriminating that someone pays much less for the very same offence made by another driver. Another thing that I oppose, is the minimum fine. 1,500 crowns for the smallest offence can ruin someone's existence. There are still many people who make 7,000 crowns a month and can only afford to spend that much at Christmas."

Man 2: "Maybe it will help. With the way the police have been behaving, people have lost their respect for them and don't bother to respect road regulations."

Man 3: "There's a school nearby and two months ago I alerted the authorities of a speed limit sign in front of the school that's difficult to see because it is hidden behind branches. Until today, they have not done anything about it even though it is very dangerous. I think they need to re-think their priorities and I wonder whether the driving force behind this point system is something other than to make our roads safer."

Besides the accumulation of demerit points for every road violation, drivers will also have to keep their lights on all year round, can have their licence taken away on the spot, and could face fines of up to 50,000 Czech crowns (or 2,200 US dollars) - the lowest fine has been set at 1,500 crowns (some 66 US dollars), which is no small sum given that the average monthly salary is only a little over ten times that figure. The ministry proposal also states that trucks should only be allowed to drive in the slow lane on a motorway and will be prohibited from overtaking.

After two hours of discussion - following a two year battle over the proposal's content - the point system got the green light in the lower house. However, all opposition centre-right Civic Democrat deputies and two Communist MPs voted against it. Their biggest fear is police corruption. Traffic police are the lowest paid in the service and yet that is the most popular department among applicants. Some say this is mainly because it is one of the most lucrative jobs if you're corrupt and willing to accept bribes. According to the Civic Democrats, the point system would be an even bigger temptation for traffic police to accept a few thousand crowns from a driver in return for turning a blind eye to a violation that could cost the driver his licence. Would Czech drivers be tempted to bribe a police officer?

Man 1: "Of course, if someone has eleven points and police officers threaten to give him three more, he will have no other choice."

Man 2: "Let's hope that the police won't turn this into a profit-making activity."