In the Netherlands, which has a population size of more than 4-times that of Georgia and vehicle fleet size of around 9 million (despite being smaller geographically), approximately 250 people are killed each year as a result of road traffic collisions. In Georgia this figure stands at 600. More than double. With around 10,000 people being injured and thousands suffering life-long disabilities each year.
So, why is the Netherlands a much safer place? Well, let’s look at speeding. In the Netherlands, the tolerance level for speeding is 3 km/h above the designated limit. But in Georgia, the Soviet standards allowing excesses up to 15 km/h remain. The popular myth among the population (and sometimes also promoted by so-called experts) being that this is in line with UN standards.
Furthermore, during recent parliamentary discussions on new road safety legislation in Georgia, several Parliamentarians actually advocated for increasing speed limits on certain roads because travel times were seen as being too long. While some groups have gone even further to demand differentiated fines and privileges for drink driving which would revoke the driving license ban for those found to be only in ‘light condition’ of drunkenness. Meanwhile, several TV anchors, citizens and ‘experts’ have demanded the removal of traffic lights and pedestrian refuge islands because they obstruct movement and cause traffic jams.
In many developed and developing countries such issues relating effective systems for road safety have been settled, and these societies are reaping the benefits. So why does it seem that in Georgia people want to reinvent the wheel?
Morning TV news programmes are flooded with such stories as “Today a car burst into the booths on Kazbegi Avenue”; “Rustavi highway was blocked for an hour due to a road–traffic collision”; or “on Tsereteli Avenue air pollution is worse compared to previous years”.
If before, driving was seen as the main hazardous road activity, today, walking on designated pedestrian pavements is almost as dangerous.
There are still key transport questions that need to be answered. How much does Georgia spend on road safety? Who is specifically responsible for the existing situation on the country’s roads? Why is the quality of public transport service getting worse? The number of private vehicles in Tbilisi has doubled over the past 3 years. While, the business card of Georgian towns looks like this: hours of traffic jams, road traffic collisions, public transport spewing diesel soot, sidewalks covered in cars as far as the eye can see. We love to open up new, shiny hotels and shopping centers but, as a foreign friend of mine observed, there is no satisfactory pedestrian access, parking or traffic management to guide prospective patrons into these establishments!
Car drivers enjoy an unfair privileged position in Georgia. Speeding and drink driving penalties are low. If you have a car and money, it is possible to just pay up and carry on driving more or less without consequence. About 200,000 speeding cases are recorded annually. Many drivers are repeat offenders, continually putting their own (and the lives of others!) in danger. Novice drivers get their driving license by passing a theory exam and a single drive around a closed car park – with zero real-life driving experience. So, after passing a practical driving examination in Rustavi, half of drivers could hardly arrive in the capital Tbilisi.
As spending cuts on infrastructure occur across many Georgian towns, through which things like zebra crossings, traffic lights and children’s school crossings are funded, road safety and transport will remain a secondary issue.
Georgia’s claim to be a transport and logistics hub is underpinned by hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in road infrastructure, mostly highways. But what will happen as more roads are built? The cost of not addressing road safety will only grow. According to an assessment made by Soames Job, the new Global Lead for Road Safety and a well-known expert in the sector, on 30 November 2016, Georgia lost 5.2% of its GDP due to road traffic collisions. That’s USD 300 million. This sum of money can be easily saved and injected into the economy to improve road safety, transport and many other services. To do this, new, stricter legislation is required and most importantly law enforcement needs to be improved through the use of the modern technologies.
This is especially important as the country anticipates a tourism boom; 8 million tourists are set to arrive in the next 2 years. Being a regional leader with successful economic and democratic reform is overrated, if while walking from one district to another people’s lives are at risk.
The country’s great plans for economic development will not become a reality if authorities, business and society cannot agree on arranging safe crossings before schools in Gori, Kutaisi, Poti, Telavi and Tbilisi. Clean, safe transport is a daily necessity that is needed much more than another statement about spatial arrangement and road section highway reconstruction.
Unless this approach changes and we stop trying to reinvent the road safety wheel, the lives of our citizens will be in danger every time they walk out of their door.