What is to be done to make Czech roads safer?

Vehículos en la actualidad

Driving on busy dual-carriageways such as this in the centre of Prague can be a hairy experience, and those who have tried it often come away with a rather jaded view of Czech drivers. Indeed, the Czech Republic has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in all of Europe; last year, nearly 1,100 people died on Czech roads.

Photo: CTK
To cut the number of road deaths, the government introduced a point system in July 2006. Drivers could pick up between one and seven points for committing a traffic offence, once they amassed 12 points, they were banned from driving for one year.

Three years on, and the number of road deaths has fallen. But not by as much as was hoped. Now, some politicians are calling for reform, amongst the most vocal is Civic Democrat David Šeich:

“It is not working perfectly. There are many, many ideas about how to change the system. Because at the moment, the system doesn’t play a real preventative and educative role, it works more as a punishment and sanctioning system. We would like to support and encourage measures which would really make our highways more secure.”

David Šeich is not the first politician to propose amendments to the system. Last year the then transport minister, another Civic Democrat, Aleš Řebíček, brought forward proposals to overhaul the scheme. They were put on ice, indefinitely. Those who have been watching the situation, such as traffic expert Stanislav Huml, say that it is now high time for change:

The only problem is what sort of changes should be made to the points system. This is where views start to diverge. David Šeich and a group of Civic Democrat MPs propose raising the points limit from 12 to 18:

“We would like to punish only much more dangerous breaches of the security rules with points. This means giving people points for running a red light, speeding by over 20kmh in towns, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving the wrong way down a one-way street. This sort of much more dangerous behaviour we would like to punish using the points system, but other things we would like to punish only with a monetary fine.”

While Stanislav Huml, who was for many years the head of the traffic police in Central Bohemia, errs more on the side of making the system stricter:

“I am not keen on the idea of liberalizing the points system further, what I think is that the points system is now established enough to fine tune it properly. It is time for us to get rid of some of the utter absurdities that are part of the current system, and I must say, there are not too many of them.

“What I think is most important for us, here in the Czech Republic, is to start working on the quality of our roads, and on signage, so that we could find a more complete solution to the problem, so that the problem of road deaths was really tackled, in the long term, and for everyone.”

While point systems elsewhere in Europe are, as a rule, coming down harder upon drivers who commit offences, the proposal coming from David Šeich is to scrap points for those caught not wearing a seatbelt or using a telephone when driving. This is far from the first time such a suggestion has been made, nor is this a marginal idea in the Czech Republic. Still, I put it to David Šeich that such behaviour cost lives:

“It’s a point of view, of course, you could say that all kinds of breaches of the security rules are a danger. Of course, all of this is dangerous, but the level of danger is different. So, we would like to punish with a monetary fine alone smaller breaches such as not using your lights during the day or using you telephone for a short time. It is the same thing as eating or drinking in the car, I think. So, we can see the difference between very dangerous behaviour which could really endanger the lives of people and other infringements which are not so serious.”

Šeich is hoping that his plans will prove popular ahead of this autumn’s early elections. But when I asked a few Czechs out on the street what they thought of the system’s current effectiveness and whether a change could help, the prevailing mood was one of cynicism:

“I think it is only justice and you have to get the rules, so it is good for drivers.”

David Šeich,  photo: www.seich.cz
And would you make some changes?

“Hmm, not so many.”

“I think it works in part. It works in the sense that people who can afford it the least have points added to their licence. Because if you know the right person, and you yourself are higher up, then your can always find a way not to have any points added. The only thing I would change is the whole government.”

“I have nothing to compare it with, so I really don’t know what the benefits are.”

But do you think it really has lowered the number of accidents on Czech roads?

“From the statistics I have heard, it really hasn’t”

“Yeah, I think that it works and that it is better than before.”

So you feel safer as a driver now?

“[Laughs] No! I don’t feel safer. But I do think it is better than nothing.”

The point system is now three years old, and most agree there are some wrinkles to be ironed out. But few now seem to think that the system should be scrapped. Whether liberalising or tightening the law is still such a hot topic after October’s early elections remains to be seen.