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Speed limits on Czech motorways could soon be among the highest in Europe

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By David Hutt
A man looks on crashed cars on the Czech D1 motorway between Prague and Brno where tens of vehicles collided in a series of crashes in a snowstorm on 20 March, 2008
A man looks on crashed cars on the Czech D1 motorway between Prague and Brno where tens of vehicles collided in a series of crashes in a snowstorm on 20 March, 2008   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Video footage of Czech millionaire Radim Passer driving a high-powered sports car up to 417 km/h on a German autobahn has not gone down well.

Prosecutors could file criminal charges later this week.

But the 58-year-old businessman could soon have his appetite for speed better accommodated back home in the Czech Republic.

The new government in Prague recently dusted down an old idea to increase the speed limit on sectionsof motorway from 130 to 150 km/h.

That would give the Czech Republic one of the highest speed limits in Europe.

It has left many scratching their heads as to why the transport ministry would resuscitate an idea it had opposed back in 2015 when MPs proposed a similar speed limit change.

At the time, the amendment was quickly killed off by the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament, and President Milos Zeman publicly declared he would never sign such a change into law, even if parliament agreed to it.

Video posted to Radim Passer's YouTube channel showed footage of a car going up to 417 kph

“Czech drivers do not respect the law, so increasing the speed limit will lead to even more risky situations because nobody will stop at 150,” said Ondrej, a commuter in Olomouc.

“I can imagine when a minister has a driver and a limousine it sounds like a nice idea, but the reality is different.”

Road quality concerns

Safety was the main concern in 2015, as was the simple question of why the Czech Republic needed such a change.

It came 74th in the world for quality of roads — belowEl Salvador, Iran and Gambia — in a 2018 study part-conducted by the World Economic Forum. It fell to 76th in the 2019 study, making it the fifth-worst in the European Union.

The country’s longest motorway, D1, connecting the capital Prague to Brno, was started in 1967 but decades of modernisation work only finished late last year.

The new coalition government that took office in December is eager to quickly turn things around. The new transport minister, Martin Kupka, says he will bring forward five major pieces of legislation to parliament this year, including amending the Road Traffic Act to increase motorway speed limits and improving the quality of the country's roads.

According to a local media report from last year, investment in road infrastructure fell from around 1% of GDP in 2010 to 0.6% by 2020. Yet, there has been a 10% increase in traffic on all Czech roads since 2016, and a 15% increase on highways, according to the recently released National Traffic Census 2020, a survey taken every five years by the Transport Research Centre, a public research institution.

A small poll launched on social media by the transport ministry this month found that a slight majority of respondents supported an increase to the speed limit, although it was hardly an exhaustive survey and many of the opponents to the change in 2015 have resurfaced.

The former transport minister, Petr Moos, told local media this month that the proposed reform would essentially increase the speed limit to 170 km/h, given the tendency of Czech drivers to skirt the rules.

The police have also chimed in with a long list of requirements. Before any changes are made to speed limits, a lengthy safety inspection of sections of motorway would first have to be carried out, police spokeswoman Hana Rubášová told Euronews.

On a newly built stretch of the motorway, “a road safety audit would need to be carried out during the actual design of the construction to take account of the proposed speed”. None of these inspections are likely to be quick.

The obvious concern is safety, especially as improvement has been made in recent years. Road traffic deaths (per 1,000,000 inhabitants) fell from 141.5 in 1999 to 86.3 in 2009 and 57.9 in 2019, according to the OECD.

Any change to the speed limit will “increase the difference between the fastest vehicles and the slowest ones”, Rubášová explained.

Since the minimum speed limit on Czech motorways is 80km/h, the current speed differential is 50 km/h, she noted. But a change of the maximum speed would increase the deferential to 70 km/h, meaning the fastest cars will be driving at nearly twice the speed as the slowest.

Aware of these criticisms, the new suggestion put forward by the five-party coalition government has watered down the 2015 proposal. A cabinet statement said the speed limit would only be increased on “new sections of motorways equipped with modern telematics”, meaning the maximum speed can be automatically lowered depending on conditions. On existing sections, it would only be applied where similar safety concerns can be addressed, such as on routes with three lanes.

According to local media reports, only a few stretches of the existing motorway network have so far been identified as suitable: the longest, between Prague's Spořilov and Mirošovice junctions, is 21km; the shortest is a 2km stretch of motorway near Brno, in the southeast. The transport ministry did not respond to questions from Euronews.

Distraction tactic?

Politics may also be at hand, some suspect. The main champions of this change are the Civic Democrats (ODS), the largest party in the five-member coalition government, said Lubomír Kopeček, a political science professor at Masaryk University.

Many of its voters are middle-aged entrepreneurs and traders for whom a speed-limit increase would be popular, he added.

Later this year, Czech political parties and alliances will compete in tight municipal elections where issues like road construction and transport tend to dominate.

Some in the Czech press have also intimated all this may simply be an exercise in political distraction. The transport ministry has recently made a series of unpopular announcements, including a reduction in fare discounts on trains and buses for students, seniors and the disabled from April, a policy in keeping with the new government’s promise to cut state debt and expenditure. Naturally, the issue of fare reductions was pushed out of the headlines by the speed-limit debate.

Kopeček, the political scientist, reckons there is a good chance of it passing parliament. Criticism is likely to come from ANO, the largest opposition party, whose voter base is typically older people more cautious about speeding, he said. But the coalition government controls an eight-seat majority in parliament, so the amendment would pass unless there is major dissent in the coalition ranks.

President Zeman, who in 2015 vowed never to enact the change into law, will be out of office after the presidential election next January.

Kupka, the transport minister, has suggested he will send this proposed amendment to the Chamber of Deputies for debate either this year or in early 2023.

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