DRIVING THE CZECH ROADS!

by Thomas Zahn - 2008-03-19

A couple weeks ago, my wife, three children, and I packed into the car for our annual school "Spring Break". No big deal, that it still was Winter. Just a 3 hour drive and we were in the mountains in the South West corner of the Czech Republic, and we could at least hope for snow and some much anticipated skiing. In fact there was no natural snow, but instead just enough of the man made variety. Nevertheless, our daughters managed to make the most of it, while Marie and I tended to our youngest, who at 4 months, could hardly care less. Under the circumstances, this trip was the least we could muster, in terms of a holiday, .

In spite the weather, conditions of the slopes, comfort of the lodging, and all other details concerning this holiday, the overall experience was enjoyable. Up until the return trip home to Prague, it could be said that we managed a fairly happy time, without incident.

Our relaxed mood, however, was abruptly interrupted during the drive home, when another vehicle literally forced us off the road. After 14 years driving on Czech roads, I thought I was prepared for just about anything. So I thought. This near miss was a sober reminder, though, just how dangerous these roads are. The fact that the other vehicle was a well marked tour bus, containing several passengers, who were both witness and hostage to this reckless behavior, made the event even more noteworthy.

My first response was to want to chase after this driver, to confront him directly, but with my family already terrorized enough, it was all I could do to find some quiet place to stop, where we could all get out of the car and calm down. Although I called the police immediately to report this incident, the questions they asked clearly indicated that nothing short of an accident was necessary for them to intercede. I had hoped that perhaps they might respond by waiting further down the road.

As I reflected about this, it seemed clear that not much has been done in the Czech Republic to discourage reckless driving. Even the adoption of a point system, by a divided Czech Parliament, was ineffective, as it was undermined from the very start by news, only days after the law went into effect, that police and government officials didn't themselves abide by the regulations.

Whatever positive effects may have been initially reported in the weeks and months after the new law went into effect,  the circumstances have sadly deteriorated into even more aggressive disregard for the rules of the road. This became evident when in March of 2008 an accident involving more than 200 vehicles literally closed the main road between Prague and Brno (Bratislava, Budapest, etc.). The cause of this accident was later reported as vehicles exceeding the speed limit. Even though the posted legal speed limit is 130Km/hour on the highways, vehicles typically travel at far greater speeds, which compounds the problem caused by too many trucks traveling at only 80 or 90Km/hour.

It is disturbing that so many drivers not only drive far above the posted limits, but that they do so arrogantly. This is not surprising, however, since they enjoy a certain impunity from enforcement. Currently there is simply not enough police to enforce the law, and a cultural misconception that driving in excess of the speed limit is somehow not reckless. If nothing else, this disregard for the new rules, has only served to make those breaking these laws that much more confident in their status above the law.

It is now more common than ever to encounter reckless drivers on the Czech roads. Along with this, however, there is a new era of expedience at any cost. This is evident by the number of clearly marked company vehicles being driven in  an aggressive manner. It was recently disclosed that many employers pay the cost of traffic violations. It is therefore not only the fault of law enforcement, or lack of clear regulations, but furthermore an ethic supported by employers who willingly support their drivers who directly threaten the safety of others.

It was not my intent here to simply write an open ended complaint. I have already had my share of frustration, for example when I called the police after this near miss, they could not do anything unless there had been an accident. There was no opportunity to register a complaint. No effort to re-assure me that this was out of bounds. My family and I were very nearly the victims of someone who for all intents and purposes should never be trusted with such a task as driving, and I couldn't even get a word to console me in my near hysterical state.

So what is to be done? A letter to the tour operator? A letter to the editor of the local travel industry association? What indeed will make me feel safe as I set out on my next trip? It is my wish to share this experience with as many readers as possible, in an effort to inform those who plan to drive in the Czech Republic, that they do so at great risk to themselves. Furthermore, I would recommend a boycott of any agency that does not provide some mechanism for passengers, or other drivers, to report misbehavior on the part of their employees. Whether it is a taxi, a tour bus, or any other company vehicle, there must be some mechanism to report such misdemeanors as carelessness and excessive speeding.

As a tour operator myself, I make my living driving visitors from one end of this country to another. In all honesty, without strict legislation and better enforcement, it is not possible to assure visitors that they will not also be the victims of belligerence and rage on the Czech roads. If the politicians, police and business owners of the Czech Republic cannot protect visitors, then perhaps visitors should send clear message to those encouraging you to visit this beautiful place (e.g. Czech Tourism). Make the roads safer!