Number of road deaths in the Czech Republic drops sharply for the first time in a decade


The Czech Republic has long had one of the worst road safety records in Europe, and horrific pile-ups have become a daily feature on the evening news. But finally, it seems, there's been some improvement - last year saw a substantial fall in the number of deaths. So what's behind it, and will it last?

At last some good news from the Czech police - the number of road deaths fell sharply in 2004, the first such fall in several years. The Interior Ministry said 1,215 people died on Czech roads last year - around 100 less than in 2003. Robert Stastny, from the Transport Ministry's Road Safety Department:

"You know that in April last year, the government passed a national strategy, and the Ministry of Transport with the Traffic Police started to do more for road safety. We see some results, and we should say thanks to the media, because the media really highlighted the problem of road safety, and it's discussed in society. So I think this result is also connected to the interest of the media and journalists."

The police themselves say there is no simple explanation why the number of road deaths has fallen. Rather a combination of factors appears to have contributed to the result. Media interest certainly has been of major importance, with heavy coverage of a spate of appalling accidents over the summer for example. But there are other factors too. There are more police on the roads, and more regular crackdowns. Czechs are gradually buying newer - and safer cars. The high price of fuel could have played a role. And above all, planned stricter legislation - including a penalty points system - has been uppermost in people's minds.

"People are speaking about it more; discussing it in pubs, for example. And, I feel the support of society to approve a stronger law. Unfortunately we don't see it in parliament. It's a bit strange because people are willing to have a stricter law, but politicians not so much."

At the end of last year parliament rejected draft legislation submitted by the Transport Ministry which would have revolutionised the country's driving regulations. Under the new points system, errant drivers would automatically risk losing their licences for accumulated offences, as opposed to the current system whereby only a judge can order a licence to be confiscated, after a lengthy court process during which the driver - even if he or she has killed someone - is allowed back on the road.

Following the bill's failure a new, watered down version is now being discussed in parliament. However Robert Stastny believes this has sent a dangerous message to drivers, a message which could see a turnaround in this apparent reversal of fortunes.

"For example December was a totally bad month, and we must see how things develop. Of course something happened last year, we achieved some improvement, but we must go on, and it will be harder and harder to repeat this result."