By Maria Epifanova for Euronews
Latvia remains among the most dangerous countries in Europe in terms of road accidents despite a decrease in road traffic deaths. The government has taken on measures in the hopes of to tackling the issue, such as imposing harsher sanctions against speeders and drunk drivers. Experts say, however, poor road surfacing quality is also to blame.
In 2016, 158 people died in car accidents in Latvia. In relation to the general population, it equals to 80 road deaths per million inhabitants. The figures are 60% higher than the average in the European Union (50 road deaths). Only Romania (97) and Bulgaria (99) fared worse.
Last year, in 2017, Latvia continued to show improvements as it did in previous years. Latvia's statistics office tallied 134 deaths, which is 15% less than in 2016.
The number of people who were injured in car accidents was 4,942 last year.
“According to data in European countries, three main reasons for car accidents are speeding, consuming alcohol before driving and not using safety belts. In Latvia it is also the pedestrians factor," says Anna Kononova of Latvian State Roads. "Condition of infrastructure also plays a major role in traffic safety control."
Research carried out by the European Road Safety Observatory claims that poor road surfacing conditions, especially in rural areas, is one of the main causes of car crashes in Latvia. According to the data, provided by specialists from Latvian State Roads, only 57% of main roads can be considered in a good or very good condition. Even worse are gravel roads.
“The volume of traffic there is low, and money hasn’t been invested into their repairmen for years," says Kononova. "This year the situation will change, around €30 million will go towards the repairmen of local gravel roads."
“Special attention is paid to the safety of road users who are less protected — pedestrians and bicyclists," adds Kononova. "New crosswalks and bikeways are being constructed, together with traffic barriers, reconstruction of crossings, etc.”
In general, Latvia spends less than its neighbours on road works. In 2017 state expenditures amounted to €159 million, while in Estonia this figure was €210 million and €428 million in Lithuania. Unable to repair all the roads, the government has set new restrictions. A few years ago the maximum speed for a roadway Riga — Jurmala, connecting Latvia’s capital with its closest seaside repost — was 100 km/h. As the surfacing condition worsened, the maximum was set at 90 km/h.
Latvian State Roads have created their “black dots” map, marking roads that are especially dangerous for drivers. Most of them are located in the Riga region and rural areas.
“We mostly use trough roads, connecting Latvia with Russia, Belorussia or Estonia, and they are mainly fine," says Valdis Trezins, president of “Latvijas auto” association, which unites road transportation companies. "If we take a look at smaller roads, that connect bigger roads with terminals or factories, I have a lot of questions to the government. Their quality is much worse," he says.
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In a bid to reduce the number of car crashes, the government is now slapping hefty fines for those found violating speeding limits. Three years ago speeding fines rose significantly. There's now a minimum fine of €40 when speeding outside towns and €80 when within a town. For speeding 50 km/h above the limit, drivers will be set back €360 and €480, and the driver is likely to lose his license. In neighboring Estonia, however, the figures are much higher: maximum fine for speeding is €1,200.
“One of the most effective ways to increase safety on roads is regular control over drivers," says Elizabete Puce of the ministry of transport. "This can be achieved with using both fixed and portable speed cameras. Next year there will be already 100 fixed speed cameras in Latvia."
The ministry of transport also plans to better educate drivers and test their skills before giving out licenses. “Among the latest decisions, I can mention the video questions will be part of the exams as of spring 2018 and will stimulate drivers to anticipate and recognise dangerous situations and also to develop their skills of reacting in such situations," says Puce.