Ever been driven around in a Bulgarian taxi? Then most likely you remember clinging to the door handle in terror while the cab driver pulled out from the far right lane at a major intersection to make a left turn – on red in front of an on-coming tram. Although it probably only cost you a few years off your life and perhaps a dry-cleaning bill, the Bulgarian government pays a much higher price for such recklessness. According to a recent survey conducted by the Danish consulting firm COWI, Bulgaria shells out one billion euros every year for costs related to traffic accidents. This hefty price tag includes direct expenses such as emergency police and medical services and rehabilitation for accident victims, as well as indirect losses due to injured citizens' reduced labour capacity.
Thanks to EU pressure, Bulgaria has developed an action plan to reduce by half the number of traffic fatalities and injuries. But as COWI points out, “Nothing will improve unless the national government seriously changes its attitude.” Bulgarian roads are twice as deadly as Western Europe's. In 2006, more than 1,000 people died in road accidents in Bulgaria, while the number injured was over 10,200. Things only got worse in 2007, when fatalities reached almost 1,100 and injuries nearly 11,000. If current trends continue, in 2010 traffic accidents in Bulgaria will claim about 1,300 lives and injure 13,400.
Bulgaria has pledged to reduce the number of traffic victims by 2010 to the established EU norms: injuries should number no more than 6,600, while fatalities must not exceed 700. Bulgaria has its work cut out – while the other member states have steadily reduced fatalities, Bulgaria has seen a five percent increase in deaths and a seven percent rise in traffic injuries annually.
COWI – and any Bulgarian – knows why: the government's lack of control and action, as well as the public's keen awareness of this institutional apathy, breeds reckless driving and disregard for the law.
Urban risks are significantly greater than highway hazards. In Bulgaria nearly half of all injury-causing accidents happen in town. In other EU countries, urban smash-ups make up a third of such cases at most. However, highway accidents tend to be far more serious than in-town fender-benders due to higher speeds. To reduce fatalities, COWI urged the Bulgarian government to institute a national emergency telephone number and to equip all major highways with traffic emergency warning stations.
If these grim statistics make you want to park your car and walk, think again. COWI also notes that the percentage of pedestrians killed in traffic accidents is also much higher in Bulgaria than in other EU countries.
COWI indicates that Bulgarian reforms miss the mark. The measures taken to impose EU standards are weak if not entirely absent, while their implementation, when it occurs, is haphazard and badly coordinated.
Jesper Mertner of COWI points out that the institutions created to impose safety measures, such as the State-Public Consultative Commission on Road Safety Problems, do not have the necessary funding, legal authority or personnel to act effectively. Every year they identify the biggest traffic headaches, but since the commission has no clout, little improvement results from this labelling. This problem is compounded by the almost complete lack of monitoring to gauge the effectiveness of new traffic safety measures.
Does Bulgaria have any chance of reaching EU targets? Probably not, Mertner concludes.
So next time you're clutching a taxi dashboard, if pleas for your life don't move the driver, try using an economic argument. Not only can the cabbie help the government save a cool billion, but slower driving – and even stopping at red lights – may help him boost his own fare.
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The COWI report pointed out another elephant in the living room – the fact that Bulgarians do not trust the traffic police. COWI noted that it is possible to avoid paying tickets due to “the lack of a written strategy for the traffic police”. Any Bulgarian can tell you there is no shortage of unwritten rules about the proper way to slip a 10-leva bill into your driver's license.