Driving BiH roads requires ninja reflexes

Outdated and poorly maintained roads are big reasons for traffic accidents and fatalities, but BiH unlike Croatia and other European countries, has no strategy for improving and adding to its roads infrastructure.

Foto: CIN

In late November of 2005, Robert Bubalo, a journalist from Široki Brijeg, ended up in car repair shop instead of at an interview with Raif Dizdarević, former member of Yugoslavian presidency.

Near Blažuj, while entering Sarajevo, a boulder dropped from an overpass in front of his car. The front of his 8-month-old Škoda Fabia was destroyed, though Bubalo and a colleague were unhurt.

Miroslav Miro Solomunović, a 36-year-old automobile sports enthusiast and professional mountain racing driver, was not so lucky.

Miroslav Miro Solomunović, 36, died in last May after an accident.

In mid-May 2006, he died of injuries suffered in an accident near Visoko. His wife Sanja believes he would still be alive if the sharp ends of a guard rail along that busy regional road in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) had been properly dug in.

From 2003 until September of 2006, 55 people died on FBiH roads and 1,480 were hurt, including Solomunović and Bubalo.

Federal police count 5,346 traffic accidents in less then four years, and experts say that almost 6 percent resulted directly from road conditions.

Although accidents occur on roads around the world every day, experts from the European Commission for Regional Development of BiH warn that lives are in bigger danger here than anywhere else in south-east Europe because of road damage and landslides, lack of signaling and slippery road surfaces.

They found after an in-depth examination of roads in BiH that protective railing is missing in many places, and that responsible individuals are neglecting and not properly maintaining them.

Almost 12 years after the war, most regional roads are still damaged, cracked and full of holes. Roads built on steep slopes, with sharp bends and unprotected slants are particularly dangerous because they need frequent repairs of bumps and holes.

Accidents could be avoided and lives saved if officials in road bureaus and the contractors they hire worked in a timely manner, fitted protective netting for landslides, and put protective railing or fences in place. Instead, they justify inaction by citing lack of funds, war damage and divisions on entity and cantonal levels.

In a series of stories, the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) has found that BiH authorities have not made roads a priority. Bureaucracy, poor cooperation among agencies and political infighting has led to higher costs, frequent construction and poorer quality work. BiH roads, among the worst in Europe, are hurting the economy and costing lives.

Blame and lawsuits

Branko Dokić, minister of traffic and communications in BiH, rejects such criticism and maintains that BiH has average infrastructure compared to the rest of southeast Europe. ‘Roads are adequately maintained’ he says.

The FBiH Bureau of Roads says it spends 32 million KM a year to keep up 2,028 kilometers of regional roads, to buy and install signaling and light tunnels.

Miroslav Miro Solomunović, 36, auto-sport enthusiast and professional mountain-race driver with his son Kristijan, is shown here a few months before the accident that cost him his life.

‘Regional roads are marked and it can’t be said that there are no traffic signals. There are enough of them…’ said Ljubo Pravdić, director of the FBiH bureau.

That is not enough to prevent all accidents, he admits, but he adds that, ‘As soon as something happens, we immediately put signals in place and make detours.’ This happened after the Solomunović accident.

A day after he died the railing at the accident site was repaired, but Solomunović’s widow sees that as proof of how easily the death of her spouse of 13 years might have been avoided.

‘Somebody must lose his life, or become disabled, before this country does something to fix that’ she said.

Despite advice from friends and relatives, she has not sued the FBiH Bureau of Roads. Nobody can make up for her pain and loss and that of her 12-year-old son.

Bubalo did sue, charging the FBiH Ministry of Traffic and Communications and the Bureau of Roads in the canton of Sarajevo, as well as the construction companies Bosnaputevi and ŽGP which did work on that part of the road. He has claimed that the work was responsible for the accident that did 3,300 KM damage to his car.

At the moment, this is the only trial in Sarajevo municipality court in which compensations has been requested as a result of an accident caused by the road conditions.

An inadequately marked road in Turba, between Jajce and Lašva, has been a frequent accident scene. Four people died and 32 were injured here between 1999 and 2003.

However, the roads bureau has already spent large sums for medical treatment of traffic accident victims and for repair of their vehicles.

FBiH auditors determined that, only in year 2003, the federation bureau spent almost 1 million KM defending itself. In 2004, it spent 270,000 KM as compensation for traffic accidents that judges determined they were responsible for.

The FBiH Official Gazette published that the bureau spent another half million KM for compensation in 2006.

‘They are suing us non-stop… You have many cases where records are inadequate, where people use vehicles that have already been previously damaged’ said Pravdić who rejects blame for all accidents.

A vocal critic of the current state of Bosnian roads, even Pavo Boban, assistant to the FBiH minister for traffic and communications, agrees that roads are not the sole problem.

‘If someone while driving 120 kilometers per hour hits a pothole, who is to blame: the pothole or the driver?’ asks Boban.

Outdated roads can’t handle modern traffic

Except for 20 kilometers of highway from Vogošća to Visoko and the western entrance to Sarajevo, there has been almost no significant new road construction in BiH in 40 years. There is need for much more, say experts, to connect with the rest of the Europe, but also to cut down on fatal and expensive accidents.

FBiH road inspector Amer Zilić warns that traffics signals and signs, like the roads, are 40 years old and dangerous. The independent consultant company IPSA warn that the current regional road network doesn’t meet current traffic demand.

Zoran Šteger, from CONEX, a Mostar building projects firm, offers a vivid description:

‘Roads, slopes and such were made for Fićo automobiles, or in other words, for lighter traffic and for lower quality vehicles…’ According to him, in the 1960s the popular Fićo was a good car, but today, people drive vehicles with about 70 to 100 or more KW or bhp, capable of speeds of well over 100 kmph.

In Pribava, on the main road between Doboj and Šićki Brod, seven people died and 20 were injured from 1999 to 2003. This place is dangerous because it lacks lighting and signals.

Sejfudin Čengić, executive director of travel company Centrotrans Eurolines, says that his company loses between 110,000 and 150,000 KM every year, because of the bad roads. In an average year, the bus company replaces 60 windshields broken by road debris.

Kemal Hurla from Sarajevo has been a taxi driver for the last seven years. He drives some 60,000 kilometers every year.

‘I don’t need to talk about road quality. It is zero — especially sloped streets like Sagrdžije, Logavina, Vratnik. It’s a disaster. Bistrik is a catastrophe’ he said.

The bureaus of Roads in the RS and FBiH claim that they invest as much money as possible in roads, but it simply isn’t enough.

Boban, however, said, ‘There is money, but it isn’t spent properly. We have completely uncontrolled situation.’

The Karaula crook on the main road between Šićki Brod and Sarajevo is especially dangerous in winter. Experts suggest that additional signals and protective railings are needed.

Boban said, ‘If the minister of finances FBiH has to pay salaries or pensions today, and there are 5 or 10 million KM on the account, he will pay them, and he doesn’t care if that money is from road fees or fuel.’

Pravdić said there is no undedicated spending, and that all money collected for roads is invested in them. But there is not enough, he said to prevent all landslides with netting, let alone solve other road problems.

The difference in Croatia

Bosnian Goran Pavlović has lived in Zagreb for the past 15 years.

‘In Croatia, when a landslide happens, it gets fixed within a day or two’ he said. He must pay 40 KM in highway tolls to drive from Zagreb to Split, but he doesn’t regret it.

‘I would rather pay in BiH too, than risk driving by the landslides and over potholes.’

While Croatia and other places have come to recognize importance of road infrastructure and invested millions in it, BiH has no strategy for roads or any program for their maintenance, protection, and reconstruction.

‘Without a strategy of traffic development in BiH, we can’t speak about systematic, organized approach to the area of roads’ Boban said.

That leaves the drivers on BiH roads on their own.

‘I learned’ said Bubalo, ‘that you have to be careful like a ninja. You have to keep your eyes open.’

This project was completed with financial assistance from the Open Society Fund BiH