New Chance to Make the Roads Safer

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If any country has a record of poor road safety, it is certainly Russia. Perhaps this is what qualifies Russia to host a landmark conference on the issue next year.

The country's top traffic police officer, Viktor Kiryanov, told the United Nations General Assembly this week that Russia wanted to host the world's first ministerial-level conference on road safety. The UN, which is trying to reduce 1.2 million annual road deaths, gladly welcomed the proposal.

Russia has one of the worst road-fatality records in Europe. As many as 33,000 people died on Russian roads last year, according to the Interior Ministry, where Kiryanov works. Two governors have died in traffic accidents in recent years, and Kiryanov's own driver knocked down a pedestrian in Moscow earlier this year.

In all fairness, road safety has improved after a law came into force on Jan. 1 that dramatically toughens penalties for serious violations of traffic rules. Road fatalities dropped 16 percent during the first two months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to information on the Interior Ministry's web site. The overall number of traffic accidents registered in January and February also fell by 16 percent.

The number of traffic accidents and casualties, however, remains unacceptably high, suggesting that stiffer penalties alone will not solve the problem.

One issue is the fact that bigger fines give traffic police officers the opportunity to collect bigger bribes, motivating them to hide in the bushes to catch speedsters rather than keeping the roads safe with preventive measures.

A better motivated, less corrupt traffic police force is only part of the solution. The government needs to invest heavily to repair existing roads and to build better, safer roads. Not only will repaired roads prevent accidents by eliminating the potholes that drivers now have to dodge haphazardly, but new roads will help to ease traffic, reducing the amount of time that it takes paramedics to reach accidents. Their swift arrival is vital because statistics show that victims of traffic accidents have a 90 percent survival rate if help arrives within nine minutes of an accident.

Hopefully, Russia's role in the international conference will put additional pressure on the government to improve Russia's road safety record. More important, the conference would give Russia yet another opportunity to learn some of the best practices used by other countries. Kiryanov could then work out a comprehensive approach that addresses bad roads, careless drivers and pedestrians, insufficient emergency personnel and his own corrupt traffic police force.