New cars on old roads prove deadly for Eastern Europe

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Where the Lada was once king of the road, high performance SUVs now hog the highways. Eastern Europe's dilapidated road network is being invaded by thousands of large, fast, cars leading to an spate of fatal accidents.

Speeding, drink-driving and a failure to use seatbelts and child seats are being blamed for the huge human toll in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Roads accustomed to Soviet era cars are proving death traps for an affluent class of East European motorist.

The European Commission will publish a road safety report this week which highlights the problems of the EU's former Communist members.

Ministers will discuss the findings next month and the EU transport Commissioner, Jacques Barrot, is considering plans to boost car safety technology and road infrastructure, and to ensure that countries enforce penalties for driving offences imposed by other EU nations.

The Commission document shows that France has cut road deaths by nearly one third since 2001 and that the UK has one of the best records, despite an alarming jump of 15 per cent in motorcycle deaths.

But road fatalities have increased since 2001 by 4 per cent in the Czech republic, 7 per cent in Lithuania, 5 per cent in Hungary and 3 per cent in Poland.

Latvia leads the table for deaths per head of population, followed by Lithuania with both countries recording more than 200 fatalities per million (nearly four times the figure for the UK, Malta or Sweden).

And Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are the top five in terms of fatalities per million passenger miles travelled.

Latvia, where there were 44,451 crashes in 2004, introduced tough new laws in October with a points system, and three-year bans for those convicted of drink-driving. So concerned were politicians that some suggested confiscating the cars of drunk drivers - though that plan was rejected.

Margie Peden, the co-ordinator of unintentional injury prevention at the World Health Organisation, said: "Most of these countries are undergoing rapid transition and the facilities, the infrastructure and safety issues are not keeping up. In the UK or the US, motorisation took place over 30 to 40 years as did the infrastructure and the health care system. In these countries in transition, very fast cars are being brought in their thousands. The public health facilities are battling to keep up with the carnage."

While there was no blueprint for road safety, there were some basic, "low hanging fruit" measures including, tough laws against speeding, enforcement of drink-driving legislation, compulsory use of seatbelts and use of car seats for small children, Dr Peden said.

The EU report concludes: "Globally, road safety is improving in the EU; it is doing so more rapidly than before but in a contrasting manner. Above all, the progress is insufficient and serious weaknesses persist." For the rest of the EU, Greece, Spain, Belgium and France still have poorer records than countries such as the UK and Sweden, but all are improving.

However, Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004, saw a 19 per cent jump in fatalities from 2001 to 2004.

Lithuania managed to cut accident injuries and fatalities in the last years of the last decade, only for them to rise again up to 2004.

The countries that now make up the EU suffered 50,000 road deaths in 2001, and have set a target of reducing that by 50 per cent by the end of the decade.

EU initiatives to cut the figures include safety, including legislation on the rest periods for commercial drivers, research and subsidies for improving infrastructure.