Czech roads one month after new law puts brakes on bad driving

08-08-2006

It's been over a month since the new driving regulations and a rather strict point system came into effect in the Czech Republic, and there has been both approval and some grumbling about the matter. In this week's Talking Point we take to the streets to find out what Czechs are saying about the system, and we talk with Zdenek Bambas, the Director of the traffic police division at the Ministry of the Interior, to get his opinion on some of the key issues.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK It's been hard not to notice the difference on the roads since July 1st, when the new traffic law took effect. For the first time in months, I've been less fearful of crossing at designated crosswalks—cars actually stop now! Vinohradska Street, right outside the Czech Radio building, seems to have become a favorite spot for traffic police to catch offenders, and I asked Petr Zezula, a traffic policeman on duty, about why it's such a hot spot:

"We stand regularly in other Prague locations as well, but Vinohradska Street is rather busy and we catch quite a lot of offenders here, running the full range from burnt-out headlights, to no seatbelts, talking on a cell phone, or worse. One of the biggest problems here is actually people passing in the lane designated for trams, which is not allowed!"

Roughly six weeks of the new law has already had a marked effect, as Zdenek Bambas, the director of the traffic police division at the Ministry of the Interior, explains:

"According to the statistics we have available from July, the new point system had a much more positive effect that even we anticipated. The difference in the number of deaths compared to the same time last year was 48 less, and this is the most important statistic concerning our road safety. Forty-eight fever deaths also means a 40% improvement, and I think that no one dared to expect such a good result."

Petr Zezula, the traffic cop catching the offenders, agrees:

"I think there's definitely an improvement. If I take the few days I've seen, people are really driving slower, everyone is trying to abide by the rules because the point system has threatened drivers sufficiently, and I think it's a better situation."

Since there has been a fair bit of grumbling about the new regulations, both from citizens and some politicians, I asked Zdenek Bambas whether he sees reason to change anything about the new point system?

"Where the system as such is concerned, no, I wouldn't recommend changing anything. Similar point systems are in effect throughout much of Europe, and they were met with understanding everywhere, and have produced good results everywhere. However, despite the fact that our law was adjusted twice before it even ever came into effect, it contains many mistakes, or what I would consider errors. But these errors are not of the type that we can't live with this law, at least for now."

As part of the post-election rhetoric in the Czech Republic, Social Democrat prime minister Jiri Paroubek briefly suggested an amnesty for those caught committing driving offences. Even Zdenek Bambas admits that there are flaws in the new law, but he's not a proponent of any amnesty for Czech drivers:

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK "We have to differentiate between the flaws that the law contains—such as those that unrealistically state it's possible to confiscate a driver's license on-the-spot. This happens because the conditions for confiscating a license are set out in such a way that we have to return it to the driver anyhow, which I consider to be a mistake. We have to distinguish these instances from unpleasantly strict aspects of the law. For example, if you park in a spot designated for handicapped parking—even if only for a few seconds—then this is a serious offence for which you can lose your license. Some politicians spoke about an amnesty in relation to the strict aspects of the new law, but an amnesty is an unrealistic idea, because you can declare an amnesty on something that has already happened, not an offence that has yet to occur."

So what should happen, according to Mr. Bambas?

"I also think that although sometimes the sanctions against drivers may be too harsh—such as in the case of parking in a handicapped spot without clearance—then I also have to say that it's enough if a driver simply doesn't park there. Then there's no problem. So although I expect that the law could use some amending - and police officers as well as politicians have agreed on this - I think that we can live with it the way it is for the year or so that it will take to pass the legislative amendments."

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK While some Czech drivers may be complaining, I asked Zdenek Bambas to compare the situation here to other EU countries:

"I think that the overall harshness of the law is not out-of-line. In Spain they are introducing a point system right now, and there the law is much stricter than here in the Czech Republic. As a whole the law is not completely flawed, and I think that the majority of people basically agree with the new law, on the whole."

When I asked people in the streets, I found proponents of both camps:

"It's dumb! It's too strict. I am a driver, but I won't have 50 000 crowns to spare for a fine—that's too much. To be sure, I'm not driving these days."

"I see it all very positively because for the first time in many years, I am less afraid on the roads. There are still some crazy drivers out there, but yesterday I was driving all day and it was a breeze. I see the difference already, though there are some points that could be fine-tuned. There are places where the speed limit is too low, but overall, thank goodness for the law!"

Since some media reported that Czech drivers are trying to find ways around having their licenses confiscated, I also asked Zdenek Bambas about whether European Union countries are trying to find a better method for exchanging information on driving records?

"There can't be a better method of exchanging information because as it stands now, there isn't one at all! Unlike with criminal offences, bad driving records don't get registered across borders. So if you commit a driving offence in Austria, for example, this doesn't go on your record in the Czech Republic, and vice-a-versa. This also means that if you're banned from driving on Czech roads, this restriction doesn't apply to other countries, so a person could easily get a drivers' license in another country and drive there normally. However, if such an individual had their license taken away in the Czech Republic, then she or he can't get behind the wheel here, even with a foreign-issued license. This would be a criminal offence."

So according to the director of traffic police in the Czech Republic, the loopholes in the new law seem fewer than some suggested a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the European Union has for years been discussing some changes to make driving regulations more uniform. For one, the EU wants to create a database of driving records, so police and government officials in whichever country could easily find out whether the driver they are dealing with is banned from the roads in another EU state. If this becomes reality, it would mean that drivers would only get a one-shot deal: if banned from the roads in any EU country, the ban would apply across the board. Yet Czech drivers who are just getting used to the new, tougher law imposed on them can breathe a sigh of relief because this aspect of European unification is still a long way off.

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