Road deaths fall to 16-year low

Photo: CTK

The number of traffic deaths on Czech roads in 2006 dipped below 1,000, for the first time in 16 years, according to preliminary statistics released by the Czech Ministry of Transport. Police and politicians say this decline is due to the introduction last year of a so-called "points system", penalizing drivers who break the law by putting "points" on their record.

Photo: CTK
About 225,000 Czechs got points put on their driver's licenses in the second half of 2006, for infractions such as driving under the influence of alcohol, and speeding. The result, experts say, is a significant drop in the number of traffic fatalities: 951, or 177 fewer than in the preceding year.

When the law took effect last July 1, drivers were put on notice that they are being observed by police and may be penalized for violations, says Josef Mikulik, director of the Transport Research Centre.

"I think the mere existence of the points system has a strong effect on drivers. For example, before this new law, about 40-45% of drivers, and even fewer passengers, wore seatbelts. Now 75% of drivers and passengers wear seatbelts."

Preliminary numbers show points were most commonly given for minor speeding violations, ignoring STOP signs, and failing to switch on headlights.

Photo: CTK
Since its passage, the points system has become a political flashpoint, with some lawmakers and drivers' groups arguing that it is too punitive, while others have suggested the law should be strengthened. Josef Mikulik hopes no amendments will be made for at least a year, so that his group has enough data to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

In the area of enforcement, however, Mikulik says Czech police are at a disadvantage.

"Police here are missing one basic tool which they have in other countries: devices to measure a driver's speed automatically. The software is there, but unfortunately there is a statute which says people cannot be made to testify against their relatives. So any driver can say, 'Yes, my car went too fast but I wasn't the one driving, a relative was, and I won't tell you which one it was.'"

There has also been the matter of some police not setting a good example. Police President Vladislav Husak has already been caught speeding twice. A very poor role model, says Josef Mikulik

"If the police president, the highest law enforcement officer in the land doesn't himself follow the law he supported. Well, it's really a mockery of the law and in other countries I think he would have to stand down. I can't think of a worse example for our citizens than what the police president did."

With under 1,000 deaths on its roads in 2006, the Czech Republic has markedly reduced its accident rate. Still there is a great deal of room for improvement. Sweden, for example, with just a million people fewer than the Czech Republic, reported only 49 fatalities last year.