Balkan governments crack down on hazardous drivers

Sarajevo native Natasa Kuzmanovic doesn't have her driver's license yet, but she's already come bumper to bumper with the Mad Max road warriors that make this region one of Europe's most dangerous places to drive.

On a recent trip to Belgrade, she and her friend got stuck behind a driver who treated the road like an obstacle course.

"He had a big bottle with him and was driving and drinking. He was in front of us and wanted to make some contact with us," says Ms. Kuzmanovic. "Luckily for us, he made the next right turn - at a bar."

Bad driving in the Balkans came to the forefront last month when a black Audi tried to ram Serbian President Boris Tadic's motorcade in Belgrade. What appeared to be an assassination attempt turned out to be just a high-profile case of road rage over blocked traffic in the Serbian capital.

Road rage is the least of drivers' and passengers' worries, says Kuzmanovic. Other habits behind the wheel include high-speed driving, passing on blind corners, smoking, talking on cellphones while shifting gears, and driving home after a few glasses of homemade brandy.

"It is really dangerous," Kuzmanovic says. "People drive really fast, they don't wear seatbelts, and you hear about another accident every day."

Bosnia's highway fatalities may not be as high now as they were in 1996, the year after the war, when Bosnia ranked second in the Balkan region only to Albania in fatal car accidents per capita, but they are still high.

In the Muslim-Croat half of Bosnia created by the peace agreement that ended the war, the statistics agency reported 16,600 traffic accidents and 171 people killed in just the first eight months of this year.

Governments here are starting to address the problem.

Kuzmanovic's rush to take driving lessons - despite the dangers - was prompted by a package of new laws attempting to drive down the number of fatal car accidents. Among other things, they'll require a more difficult and expensive driving school system, a points system, and the standardizing of speed limits and fines throughout the country.

"Bosnia-Herzegovina has too many different laws - up until now, fines were different from canton to canton," says Bosnia's assistant transportation minister Mirko Sekara, adding that the new laws should be passed by the end of March.

He agrees that the statistics are "alarming," and says that Bosnia's two-lane, poorly maintained mountain roads make the problem worse.

Mr. Sekara hopes the laws will decrease the number of accidents, but says that ultimately it's up to the people to follow the rules.

"They say that traffic accidents are caused by a combination of the [driver], the vehicle, and the road, but I have to say that the [driver] is the biggest factor," he says.

Neighboring Croatia has taken a controversial measure to reduce its own highway fatalities.

In August, the parliament passed a zero- tolerance blood alcohol limit for drivers. Tourism workers are blasting the law as bad for business at a time when thousands of foreign tourists have begun swarming back to Croatia's Adriatic coast.

"If the police take away a guest's driving license for having one beer, would this guest come back for a vacation in Croatia? I don't think so," says Franko Trojic, a waiter near the seaside town of Dubrovnik. He says restaurants could be hit hard if the law isn't amended by the time the next tourist season begins in May.

Getting hassled by the police every weekend is also annoying, Trojic says.

"I have to pass at least three police stops on the way back home. Now they don't even ask you for your driving license - if it's Friday or Saturday night, they immediately give you the alcohol detector to blow," he says. "[And] it hasn't changed anything for those people who continuously drink and drive."

Because of opposition from the country's association of hotel and restaurant owners, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader recently announced that the government is considering amendments to the law.

Bosnian law sets a 0.0 blood alcohol limit for bus and truck drivers, but it will allow regular drivers to have a 0.3 level. Alcohol in the blood, says Sekara, can come from fruits and some types of chocolates, and the Bosnian government saw no need to slash the limit to zero.

Kuzmanovic, however, welcomes the new laws - even their hefty fines of up to 700 Bosnian marks (US $476) for running red lights, speeding, or illegal passing.

"I'm totally supportive of that," she says. "The penalties should be higher, especially the financial penalties, because many people are scared about the money. If you charge them more, people will definitely think twice."

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