Yet another case of "official speeding" reopens questions of safety and behaviour on Czech roads

12-05-2004

The Czech Republic has seen it happen before and so far there's not much anyone has been able to do about it: "official speeding". Compared to their counterparts in Great Britain and Austria, Czech cabinet ministers can exercise their right to use a flashing siren to clear traffic and exceed the speed limit to get to their destination on time, one of those issues that is inevitably reopened every time a government minister crosses the line. The most recent to do so has been Agriculture Minister Jaroslav Palas.

The weekly Nedelni svet was the first to break the story, reporting that using the beacon Mr Palas' driver hit 230 kilometres on the Prague-Brno motorway, a full 100 kilometres over the official speed limit.

Not surprisingly the latest incident has left Mr Palas' boss, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, less than pleased. He commented earlier in the week but stressed responsibility ultimately lay not with the minister but his driver:

"In the first place the responsibility lies with the driver: he is responsible for safety and adjusting to the situation and the rules of the road. Whether or not there was pressure from the minister is not the issue: it is up to the driver to follow the rules of his profession. There's no getting around that."

Mr Spidla also said that there were moments when 230 kilometres per hour was justified, although this wasn't one of them.

Ministers of course are allowed to resort to using the beacon in moments of dire importance - many cite the extensive 2002 floods as a perfect example when they proved their usefulness. Other times might include getting to important votes in Parliament. But, the agriculture minister was on his way to a wine growers' conference - and that has certainly raised questions over his or his driver's reasoning. Surely nothing much would have happened had the minister arrived late...

Mr Palas has already apologised to any fellow drivers who felt threatened, though his spokesman has denied the minister's vehicle ever hit 230. Witnesses, though were of a different view, one describing the driver's behaviour as dangerous and arrogant. The minister's driver allegedly accelerated to within inches of other vehicles, in order to "inspire" them to get out of the way.

Whatever the final speed tallied - and we know it was certainly high - the whole incident has been most unfortunate for the government. Months after the police began doing everything in their power to change poor driving on Czech roads, notorious habits once again appear to go straight to the top - hardly a message the government could have really wanted to send.

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