Aiming to deal with rising death toll, Albania’s government has proposed a series of measures to strengthen law enforcement.
The death toll in a single day earlier this month was shocking even for people familiar with Albania’s deadly roads: Eleven dead and several wounded in two separate crashes at the northern and southern edges of the country.
First, a minivan carrying 11 people in the northeastern district of Kukes lost control and fell off a cliff, killing six people and seriously injuring five others on Feb. 1. Later in the day, two cars collided head on in a bridge in Saranda district. Three people died immediately, and two others perished at a hospital.
The vehicle that fell off the cliff was a furgon, a minivan-type vehicle used across Albania to transport passengers. The driver was about 20 and had no license, police said.
The Saranda crash occurred in the afternoon, 280 kilometers south of Tirana, near the Greek border. Two private vehicles crashed head on – killing everyone on board. Police said it suspected one of the drivers was drunk and had entered into the oncoming lane of the other.
These types of crashes are unfortunately not unique. Poor road network infrastructure, lack of law enforcement, unruly drivers and lack of proper education on road safety have made Albania’s roads some of the deadliest in the world.
Under pressure from the rising death toll and high profile crashes like the ones last Saturday, authorities have been prompted to act with a series of measures to strengthen law enforcement, including banning the use of the workhorse of passenger transportation in Albania – furgon minivans – from serving as alternative to buses in inter-city transportation.
Officials change regulations to stiffen penalties
The country’s transport and interior ministers, Edmond Haxhinasto and Saimir Tahiri, have presented a package of legal amendments and reforms that will aim at improving the road security in the country.
The new package has 60 measures as part of operational and institutional reforms. In addition to the furgon ban, there will be investment in road safety like the closure of surplus access points into highways, adding more signals and improving signal quality. Fuel stations will be more limited in number to avoid unnecessary entry-exit point on national roads.
“The purpose of this package is to create greater safety on the country’s roads and will deal with all the elements needed to get it done,” Haxhinasto said in a press conference. “It will deal with the road itself, it will deal with the vehicles, it will deal with drivers, it will deal with law enforcement, it will deal with training for intervention in cases of accidents and emergences; and it will also deal public awareness, because, first of all, we think that public awareness is an important part of dealing with this problem.”
Other changes will include that any unauthorized access to road infrastructure will be severely punished by law. There will also be tougher penalties, including imprisonment, for those driving drunk or without a valid license.
The annual vehicle audits, which determine whether a vehicle is safe to drive on the road, will be reformed to avoid corruption and improve safety, officials said. Police will also be closely cooperating with the post service and the banks for fine collection. Time limits on ability of cars with foreign license plates will be strictly enforced, the ministers added.
“Yesterday, I submitted to the Ministry of Justice proposal for change Article 291 of the Criminal Code, defining a minimum sentence as a measure of drivers without driving license and those who are intoxicated to 10 days imprisonment. Driving drunk or without a license, is not a violation of traffic regulations, it is a criminal offense,” Tahiri said at the joint press conference.
Albania has had a high-level of accident numbers on its roads, primarily due to a poor infrastructure and lack of respect of traffic rules by drivers and pedestrians.
The numbers are striking, considering Albania has only 2.8 million residents. Last year alone, there were nearly 300 deaths in traffic accidents. From 2000 to 2013, it is estimated that 4,350 people died in traffic-related incidents in Albania. In January 2014 alone the death toll stands at 24, including the 11 who died last Saturday.
Furgon ban debated
The ban on the furgons from inter-city lines will have the largest immediate impact on transportation in Albania. Many of these vehicles are not licensed at all, but even those that are, which carry yellow taxi license plates, where never explicitly allowed to hold scheduled services as alternatives to buses, which they now do on a regular basis, officials say.
In addition, critics say most furgons drive too dangerously both for their passengers and for other vehicles on the road, veering in and out of traffic at high speed to pick up or drop passengers on the highway.
“We will take immediate measures to implement inter-city public transport rules eliminating once and for all furgon transportation, which constitutes in our estimation a source of accidents that are often fatal for citizens,” Tahiri said.
The government wants to take all unlicensed furgons off the roads and allow the licensed ones to operate only in their home districts, where not bus lines are available.
But the move has been met with protests by the furgon drivers who say their livelihoods have been ruined by one stroke of the pen. They have had escalating protests, including forcing traffic slow-downs in several Albanian highways by deliberately closing lanes.
Passengers have also complained that they have been left stranded by the ban, with inter-city busses having limited schedules and being more expensive than the furgons.
The main opposition Democratic Party has also voiced concerns against the measure, saying the government’s decision would leave thousands of Albanians who are employed through the furgons jobless. But the governing socialists Socialists said they aimed to reform the country’s transportation service, making safety a priority.