A pile of fresh cut flowers standing by the side of the road on late afternoon of December 26th 2015, was grievously marking the spot where a 17 years old boy died in a car accident just one day after Christmas. It happened 47 km away from Tirana, Albania’s capital city, in the road segment Milot- Morine, in the same segment where two months before three other people lost their lives in a car crash or where 10 other people wounded in another accident that happened in July, 27th of the same year. Part of road well paved and part of riddled with potholes, it turns suddenly from four-lanes into two. Four bridges are under construction for the eighth year in a row. This road segment is one of the most dangerous part of Albania’s road map.

When reporting on road safety, officials in Albania prefer to tell only half of the truth:  the number of deaths from accidents has shrunk over the last decade, while data on numbers and rate of road accidents causing injuries are usually left out.   

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveal that number of road accidents per 100,000 habitants has jumped from 2005 to 2015. For every two accidents in 2005, a decade later Albania had about 3 more accidents, while for every 10 people dying from car crashes in 2005, there was one less in 2015. So while deaths are going down, accidents are growing.

Under communist rule for almost 50 years, Albania inherited a patched, underdeveloped road network used by very few people, mostly only government and communist party officials.  After the fall of communism in 1990, with help of western funding, Albania started to reconstruct old roads and to build new roads all over the country.

First years of the new millennium saw the biggest boom in road construction. According to data from EUROSTAT, during the decade of 2005-2015 Albania added around 1,300 km of new road to its overall road network. The same dataset shows a significant increase in the number of passenger cars per 1000 people. For every two cars in 2005, Albanian people had one more in 2015, with just over 400 thousand passenger cars in the country.

Officials point to the spike in the number of passenger cars to the increase in the number of road accidents. In its interview for this report, road safety specialist Flamur Mullisi said he considers it the biggest factor. Paradoxically he cites the improvements in the road network as another factor in the growing number of accidents. “For some drivers the improved road infrastructure has led to the increase of the driving speed over the limits, which in bad weather conditions or in black spots may end up in a road accident.”

The Report on Road Safety for the year 2015 issued by the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure offers two other reasons behind the high number of road accidents causing injuries: driving while under the influence of alcohol and neglecting to wear seat belts and motorcycle helmets. According to this report, a quarter of death and injury cases for the year 2015 are related to the last factor. Only one in three road users wore seat belts and motorcycle helmet during 2015, according to the report.

As for the decreasing of number of deaths, road safety specialist Arjana Hasani attributes it to the change made during the last five years in the reallocation and efficiency of the road maintenance budget. “Before 2005 most of this budget was used for road repair and pavements and only a little portion was spent for traffic signs and signals. Now this has changed and we have allocated more funds in safety road parameters”. She did not provide the breakdown of the road maintenance budget.

Nevertheless, data shows that the road maintenance budget itself hasn’t seen any increase during these years; on the contrary it has declined. According to OECD, during 2015 the rate of maintenance budget (euro per km) in Albania decreased by one fifth compared to 2005, although the number of cars have increased significantly during this period.

Despite this situation, in some aspects Albania has performed better than other neighboring and region countries like Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia, which together with Albania are EU candidate countries. Thus Albania has only a fraction of the average number of road accidents in the region with around 69 accidents per 100, 000 habitants while region’s average is 165. It has also the highest increase on number of cars, which is more than twice than the average of the region. Albania has also the highest increase in the region in regard to new roads build. That means, despite the rapid growth in passenger cars and strain on roads, Albania has managed to keep drivers relatively safe compared to neighbors.

But, Albania still has few cars and fewer kilometers of road compared to neighbors so the stress on road infrastructure is expected to grow. Meanwhile, even though the number of accidents is the lowest in the region, it remains a concern that the growth rate is the highest in the region.

Many of problems and uncertainties are expected to be improved or solved during the process of entering the European Union. To fulfill the requirements and duties that emerge from this process, the government has compiled and approved the National Strategy on Road Safety 2011 – 2020, which has set the milestones and the objectives to be reached. Among these objectives, beside frequent audits and inspection of road safety compliance, elimination of dangerous road spots, a harsher enforcement policy for traffic violations and increasing the maintenance budget, government plans to spend more money for awareness campaigns and  for citizen education, starting from elementary school.