Safer roads for Europe


(Writing for the Greek newspaper Eleftheros, June 2007)

The debate on traffic safety is a question of attitude. It is a question and a test of how we value human life. That is what it amounts to: is human life precious to us? The figures regarding traffic safety are as bleak and grim. There are about 50 000 deaths per year in the EU, about 2 million people are injured. It is the main cause of death in the under-50s age group. It costs about 2% of GNP, equivalent to EUR 200 billion. But that is only money. We have to realise that what is at stake is the human suffering.

Why do we do so little? It is because it is not the Concorde which crashes, it is not the pride of the UK and France which crashes. When that happened, all Concordes were grounded immediately. No stone was left unturned in seeking to remedy the problem. But when it comes to traffic safety, it is just one family crying here, another family crying there. When I was a small boy I was with my entire family in a motor car when my father was killed. I remember him leaning against the steering wheel, that anxiety in my chest. I am sure that experience has left me with a bigger internal handicap than I dare to admit.

There is still so much that we could do and can do. First of all law enforcement. Okay, that is not an EU matter, it is not within our competence, but that is by far the most efficient way to get things done - through law enforcement, just abiding by and obeying the current rules. We can certainly share best practice among EU members and now there is a debate on an infrastructure directive, which would force member states to improve safety on EU-financed main roads. Europeans are mobile thanks to the European road network. It is not justified, or fair on European competitiveness, that we should spend so much money on railways, which serve so little purpose compared to the road network. We have to be just in that allocation.

The EU also supports safer roads for instance through its eSafety initiative: funding is given to innovative new technologies which help prevent accidents (so-called active safety) instead of just mitigating the effects of accidents (passive safety).

Yet things are not so bleak. Traffic has grown threefold since 1970 and yet fatalities have been halved. So cultures can be changed. We must believe in the new generation. At the end of the day, whatever we do, responsibility always lies with the individual. At the end of the day we are responsible.

My own memories from Greece are marvellous, but this does not include Greek traffic. In Athens, it is chaotic: Endless queues, and when not in a queue, there are always drivers who think that they are driving in Acropolis rally when they drive on the coastal road past Astir Beach. Motorbikes are wheeling and the drivers do not wear a helmet - but police never does anything. Roads are poor, and you have invented a tarmac which on the rain becomes slippery as if it was soaped!

I suppose this is all in a way part of the irresistible Greek charm, but it is high time to stop this indifference to the loss of human life.

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