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The Warsaw Voice » Society » April 29, 2009
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A Hard Road
April 29, 2009   
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by Ewa Łabno-Falęcka, Ph.D., president of the Partnership for Road Safety Association

The statistics are terrifying. Every day, an average of 15 people die on Polish roads. Over the past 20 years, more than 120,000 people have lost their lives in traffic accidents—the equivalent of a city the size of Radom, in the center of the country, disappearing from the map.

The daily death toll on Polish roads is hardly a hot topic on the news; it does not elicit any special signs of public compassion; it is not reason enough to declare a period of national mourning; nor does it prompt politicians and local authorities to take any spectacular action. In a way, the public gives its tacit consent to what is happening. Meanwhile, new crosses are being put up by the sides of Polish roads to commemorate the dead.

Road safety has a direct impact on the more than 20 million car drivers in this country (such is the approximate number of vehicles on Polish roads), and the same goes for pedestrians, who account for a third of the total number of fatal road accident victims in Poland. Despite this, road safety is not a priority problem in Poland, even though the number of deaths in car accidents, which reached 5,347 in 2008, is higher than that of suicides and homicides combined. The total financial losses that Poland sustains as a result of road accidents are estimated at zl.30 billion per year. Cutting these losses by just 10 percent could solve the problem of pay raises for school teachers.

What can be done to improve safety on roads? Firm action is needed at all levels of civil society, in addition to political will. France managed to reduce the number of fatal road accidents by over 40 percent in 2002-2005 alone, after President Jacques Chirac made road safety one of the two priorities of his new term in 2002. Perhaps this could also be the priority of the Polish presidency of the EU in 2011—a priority above any political divisions?

Road safety is the outcome of three factors: the human factor (behavior, skills, state of health, style of driving and road manners), the vehicle (its age and condition), and the infrastructure (roads, traffic signs, road surface markings, and road engineering). When it comes to infrastructure, the state clearly has the biggest role to play. Almost 84 percent of all accidents, accounting for a total 89.2 percent of fatalities, occur on two-lane roads, with one lane in each direction and without a median. The lowest fatality rate per 100 accidents occurs on roads in Małopolska (7.4) and Silesia (7.7) provinces. These two provinces have a good network of roads and freeways, which proves beyond any doubt that one-way traffic reduces the risk of collisions between moving vehicles, which account for almost 50 percent of all accidents.

The state can also play a major educational role, from traffic education in schools to major public awareness campaigns in the media. The authorities should also work to enforce appropriate standards of technical inspection for vehicles allowed to move on roads. A recent report by the central auditing office (NIK) makes it perfectly clear that this should be the case.

The National Road Safety Council, which is an “interministerial coordination and prevention authority” as far as road safety in Poland is concerned, is supervised by the Ministry of Culture, while many experts say the council should be directly responsible to the prime minister and be granted greater powers and a higher budget.

What can we do on our own as citizens to improve the situation? After all, road safety affects the whole of society. It is a problem that the state, police and courts of law cannot solve on their own, because it is about changing attitudes and behaviors.

People in Poland tend to act extremely irresponsibly on roads. Individualism and the ability to look after number one, traits of character that were once needed to thrive and survive under the oppressive communist system, are leading to tragic consequences in a free Poland. Such attitudes take long-term, consistent efforts by nongovernmental organizations such as the Partnership for Road Safety Association to change.

The media has a huge role to play in this campaign as well. It can help a lot, but it can also undermine the effort by distorting the picture.

One example is the criticism of the new speed-camera law and the planned Automatic Traffic Control Center, which parliament has approved and which is awaiting the president’s signature. The efficiency of such a system is best exemplified by France, where the number of deaths on roads dropped by an impressive 40 percent in 2004-2006, following the installation of a speed camera network. Alas, some media have castigated the law as a case of “repressive government policy” and an attempt to “restrict freedom.” Are they arguing for a license to kill?

Meanwhile, what most media reports have failed to mention is that, before the law comes into force, there will be a thorough revision of road signs and roadway markings, and that speed limits will be increased wherever this is safe.

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