Robert Stastny - happy with mission to make Czech roads safe


Our guest in this week's One on One is Robert Stastny, head of the Transport Ministry's road safety department - or BESIP as it's known in Czech. The Czech Republic has a fairly poor record of deaths and injuries on the roads, and as Robert Stastny says, many of those casualties are preventable. All this summer the department is running a special campaign aimed at improving safety on the roads, concentrating in particular on encouraging people to always wear their seatbelts.

Robert, does your job prevent you from actually enjoying driving.

"I like to drive, but I also like walking, and I think all kinds of transport are interesting, and our goal is to create a system where everybody can survive."

Is there anything in your own life, any personal experience, which led to you becoming involved in road safety? Were you or your family ever involved in a road accident for example?

"Fortunately no. But my friends - three of my friends - died in an accident. And as a lawyer in the past I was involved in this case, so it was very unhappy."

As the head of the road safety department of the Transport Ministry, does Robert Stastny consider himself a good driver?

"I don't know. I've never had an accident. But I could be better I think."

In what way?

"I don't know. Not to be so nervous. Maybe I could be better at anticipating situations. I think everybody can be better."

The Czech Republic has long been at the top of the table of road deaths and injuries. Why is this?

"I think we are somewhere in the worst middle. It started after the breakdown of the Communist regime. Discipline got worse, and the result is on the roads."

So Czech drivers were better drivers before 1989?

"I think so. They were more disciplined, of course. People in the past didn't have such powerful cars and we had fewer cars on the road. Traffic now is heavier. I think people's discipline changed, and not only in road safety - we can see it everywhere, people aren't so good at obeying the law."

So at the heart of the matter there is a social aspect to the issue of road safety.

"Yes. I think road safety is very much connected to the atmosphere in society. And we try to communicate responsibility in general, and of course with some concrete behaviour on the road."

What are the particular problems in this country?

"I think a problem of some people - not everybody - is respecting others. If I'm a driver, to respect pedestrians. If I'm a pedestrian, to respect drivers. If I'm a driver, to respect other drivers. For example if you see a car going through a red light, it's a tragedy and it shows a big problem of behaviour."

How seriously do you think the Czech people take this issue? Often it seems that it's not a very high-priority problem.

"A lot of people are angry about it, but they consider it as a normal part of life. People say things like 'we have a lot of fatalities on the roads. It's bad, but what can we do about it? It's a normal part of life.' We must change this, because it's not necessary and we can improve it. I think more and more people recognise that it is a real problem and we can do something about it. You can see it in the work of the police, in the newspapers. I'm optimistic, and I hope my job will help to boost this change in attitude."

Nonetheless, even if there is more awareness, the statistics are the same aren't they? The number of people killed in road accidents has not changed in the last year or two when various campaigns have been underway.

"That's not totally true. We can say that in the last 12 months there's been a 15% improvement. So something perhaps is getting better, so it's a good challenge and a good chance."

There is a new campaign underway this summer, aimed primarily at people not wearing their seatbelts. Tell me about that campaign.

"Seatbelts - I think - is a number one priority for us as a communication topic for drivers. Other problems such as speeding and alcohol, they're more about police enforcement, but seatbelts are about the driver's own behaviour and protecting ourselves. According to the surveys, most people use their seatbelts on the highway, but driving in urban areas, only half of them do. Why? We think people are badly informed. They think it's not important at slower speeds, it's not so dangerous: it's a myth. We want to put forward arguments, concrete arguments, about what happens in an accident. Our slogan is 'Often you cannot avoid an accident, but you can avoid being killed.' And that's what seatbelts are about."

It's still strange that so many people won't take a simple precaution that will save their life?

"I feel that it's a bit uncomfortable for them. I don't know why, because I don't mind wearing my belt, it's not uncomfortable. Maybe it's less freedom for them, I don't know. But people think 'if I'm driving to a shopping centre two kilometres away why should I use my belt?' So they think it's not so important. They think if they're driving in an urban area there is no danger. And it's not true. And the second problem is passengers on the rear seats. They think the rear seat is some kind of sofa like you have at home. I'm out of danger. No, it's not true, because if you're not wearing your belt in the back you can injure yourself and also others, because you will be thrown forward in a crash."

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
Your surname - Stastny - means "happy" in English. You don't have a particularly happy job - road safety. How do you manage to stay happy?

"I hope being happy is part of my life from my birth to my death! But road safety is a very interesting branch in every country, because very optimistic people are engaged in it. I cooperate not only with people in the ministry, but also with private partners, with the police, with local authorities. The cooperation is superb, there's a very strong effort in this field to do something about this problem. It's a good atmosphere and it's a challenge. I like it."