Come to the Czech Republic. But don't try crossing the road.

30-08-2003

Every morning, on my brief walk to work, I risk death or terrible injury performing what should be a relatively safe task: crossing the road. So far I've emerged unscathed: but each year, thousands of people end up in hospital and hundreds end up dead. They're victims of a growing army of killers in their midst: bad drivers. It may be impolite for a foreigner - a guest in this country - to criticise the mores and habits of his adopted home, but this time it's literally a case of life and death.

The Czech Republic has a population of just over 10 million people. Each year around 1,500 of them - drivers, passengers, cyclists, pedestrians - are killed on the roads. Many more are crippled and maimed. It might not seem like much, but that figure means you are more likely to die in a car accident in this country than almost anywhere else in Europe - only in Poland, Greece and Portugal are the numbers higher.

Obviously it's not only Czech roads - or Polish roads, or Greek roads - that are dangerous. All roads, everywhere around the world are. But there are aspects of Czech road safety - or lack of it - which seem to be inviting death and mutilation. Consider the following:

- Czech drivers - by and large - don't stop at zebra crossings. Those who do stop rarely wait for the pedestrian to finish crossing the road. This is despite a new law that gives the pedestrian - as opposed to the driver - the right of way. When the law was introduced a few years ago, fatalities on zebra crossings actually increased. Try walking out onto a zebra crossing in Prague. Then again - don't.

- At pedestrian crossings at traffic lights - crossings with a little green man - the situation is only marginally better. For some reason - and I've been here ten years and have never managed to work this one out - it's green for the driver turning right and green for the pedestrian at the same time. What a stroke of genius. What a brilliant system.

- Or how about this: the Czech police aren't allowed to confiscate driving licences. They used to be, but under a new law they're not. In Hungary, I'm told, if a policeman sees you failing to stop at a zebra crossing, he'll confiscate your licence immediately. In the Czech Republic, even if a policeman sees you run over and kill a pedestrian - even if you're drunk and holding a mobile phone at the time - he can't take your licence away.

There are other peculiarities which have long fascinated and irritated me, too many to mention here. Why does no-one - not even policemen - wear their seatbelts? Why are some traffic lights routinely turned off at weekends? The list goes on.

The spiralling accident statistics - an average of five people a day were killed in July - have led to a period of soul-searching. Why do so many die on our roads? the newspapers ask, wringing their hands. What can be done to halt this terrible trend?

Well, the answer to the first question is easy. People die here, so often, and so horribly, because most Czechs are just very bad drivers. It's as simple as that. There's no mysterious formula. They're just not very good. They're aggressive. They drive too fast. They have little respect for other drivers. They have no respect for pedestrians. They regularly flout rules and regulations designed to minimise death and injury. They do this because they're allowed to, and because everyone else does.

The answer to the second question is also easy - a lot can be done. The police can be given the power to ban bad drivers - on the spot, immediately, for years if necessary - as is the case elsewhere in Europe. The government can launch grisly TV ads about the consequences of drink driving, or speeding, or not wearing your seatbelt, as is also the case elsewhere. Only such repressive measures have a hope of succeeding: the country's awful drivers will not reform themselves.

30-08-2003