Road safety and speed - EU at a crossroads
When it comes to road safety, the European Union is in a bit of a jam.Brussels - When it comes to road safety, the European Union is in a bit of a jam.
National governments, eager not to become backseat drivers on this sensitive issue, allow their policies to be shaped by tradition and vested interests.
Car manufacturers still prefer to talk "horsepower" rather than "airbags" and pressure groups led by relatives of road accident victims are tempted to offer misguided advice based on emotion rather than reason.
The result is a patchwork of at times contradictory rules and strategies pursued across the 27-members bloc.
Meanwhile, officials in Brussels have been forced to admit that their ambitious target of halving the number of casualties on Europe's roads by 2010 is unlikely to be met.
According to the latest available data provided by the EU's executive arm, the Commission, road deaths totalled 41,600 in 2005, down just 17.5 per cent from the 2001 figure of around 50,000. Motorcyclist deaths actually rose by 5.6 per cent between 2000 and 2003.
"At the present rate, road deaths in the European Union in 2010 are likely to stand at 32,500 and the target of a maximum of 25,000 will probably not be achieved," said the Commission in a memo dated February 22, 2006.
Road-related deaths are not simply a matter of personal grief for the families and friends of the victims. The socio-economic cost of road accidents is estimated at around 200 billion euros (288 billion dollars) per year, or 2 per cent of the EU's Gross Domestic Product.
And the wide variation in road-casualty data across the EU suggests national governments bear much of the responsibility for making their roads safe.
The countries with the best track-record in this area are those in which the issue has long been perceived as an emergency.
In the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain, for instance, the annual number of victims per million inhabitants ranges between 50 and 60, well below the EU average of 95.
By contrast, this figure exceeds 200 in new member states Latvia and Lithuania.
"The problem is that road safety rules need to be enforced by national governments, which are also reluctant to spend money on better roads," says Ari Vatanen, a Finnish former World Rally Champion and a road safety advocate in his current role as a member of the European Parliament.
Though he was lucky to survive a major crash while racing a Peugeot 205 "Turbo 16" in the 1985 Argentinian Rally, Vatanen frowns at what he calls the "anti-car lobbies."
"Politicians need to understand that while wealthy nations do not necessarily make good roads, good roads certainly make the wealth of nations," Vatanen told Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
Brussels has played a prominent role in promoting the so-called "passive safety" of vehicles. The Commission was the main driving force behind laws making it compulsory to wear seat belts in all member states and the executive now wants every new car in Europe to be fitted with collision-preventing radar within the next 10 years.
But EU officials have enjoyed much less success in standardizing road safety rules, largely because these are still in the hands of national governments.
Speed limits on Europe's motorways, for instance, vary from 100 kilometres per hour (kph) in Cyprus to 130 kph in Austria or France.
And while Britain is considering lowering the mandatory speed limit in built-up areas to 20 miles per hour (32 kph) from the current 30 mph, Chancellor Angela Merkel has no intention of introducing a 130 kph limit on the autobahns of Germany.
Speeding at 180 kph, German observers note, is seen as a natural right in the land of the Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and Audi.
In Italy, which has one of the worst European track records on road safety and where breathalyzers where virtually unknown until a few years ago, a debate is raging over whether to make it technically impossible for cars to go faster than 200 kph.
"The speed limit on Italy's motorways is 130 kph. What is the point of making cars that can travel at 200 kph?" says Carmelo Lentino of "Basta un attimo" (It can take just a moment), a pressure group campaigning for greater road safety awareness among Italy's youth.
Lentino, who lost a 16-year-old friend in a scooter accident, says that while alcohol and drugs abuse remains a major cause of road accidents among his peers, imposing such a limit would send out "an important signal."
It is these kinds of proposals that Vatanen strongly objects to.
And there is plenty of statistical evidence to back his view.
According to EU data, 60 per cent of road-related deaths occur outside built-up areas. But motorways account for just 5 per cent of accidents and 9 per cent of fatalities.
In Germany, where a 130 kph-speed-limit is only a "recommendation" in many stretches of its autobahns, 600 people lost their lives on the motorways in 2006, a relatively small figure compared to the overall death total of 5,094.
Vatanen argues that instead of focusing on "popular but ineffective" measures, officials should make sure drivers observe the rules that are already in place.
"Cars aren't dangerous, drivers are. After all, knives are very useful but they can also be used to kill. Does this mean we should stop making them?" the rally champion-turned-politician said.
11 November 2007
Subject: EU, speed limits, road safety