A PRESIDENTIAL driver has been blamed for a crash which left President Rudolf Schuster unhurt but swearing he would never travel by road in winter again.
The Office for the Safety of Public Officials has confirmed that the president's chauffeur on the January 2 trip from Košice back to Bratislava was responsible for crashing into the back of three other cars.
The unnamed driver, who also suffered light injuries, will be fined, Ján Packa of the Office for the Safety of Public Officials said.
Schuster and his wife, Irena, suffered light injuries in the crash near the west Slovak town of Nitra on the morning of January 2.
The car carrying the president slid into the back of an earlier accident in poor visibility caused by heavy snow.
Some witnesses said the car had been travelling at 120 km/h at the time of the crash.
However, this was denied by Packa. "Logically that cannot be. Looking at the resulting injuries and damage the speed at the time of the collision could not have been more than 40 km/h," he said.
Schuster was taken to hospital following the accident. After his examination he said he would never travel by car again in winter.
"The main thing is that we're alive. Visibility was bad, there was a strong wind blowing snow across the road. In those conditions our driver couldn't see the crash that was in front of us," the head of state said.
He added: "I'm going to take the train in winter whether anyone likes it or not."
The president has been criticised in the past for wanting to travel by train. One trip he insisted on taking from Košice to Bratislava by train allegedly cost the state far more than a normal motorcade as security men and bodyguards had to travel by car alongside the train, incurring massive extra costs.
Packa, who said that had Schuster been seriously injured would have resigned his post, said tickets on some trains had already been secured for official visits.
Schuster also complained he could not travel by plane, as Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda suggested when speaking to him immediately after the accident.
"We don't have money for telephones, let alone for planes," he said.
The president's office came under fire last year after it ran up huge bills on mobile phones. A government check on the office's expenses found that Schuster's wife, Irena, had used state mobile phones for a number of personal calls and other guards had lent mobiles to their friends to make unlimited calls at the state's expense.
The crash was the second involving the presidential motorcade in the last seven months. In June the president was again unhurt after his motorcade was involved in a crash in the town of Modra outside Bratislava. Six people were injured.
It is also the third accident involving state officials in the last 13 months. In December 2000 Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský barely escaped with his life when his government BMW was hit by another car. Two people died in the crash and Ján Čarnogurský spent months in hospital recovering.
Police at the time suggested the crash was connected with a planned assassination of the minister by underworld bosses.
In August this year two people died and 14 were seriously hurt when the prime minister and a number of cabinet colleagues were involved in a huge pile up near Nový Sad in Yugoslavia on the way back from an official visit to Belgrade.
Police said the cause of the fatal accident had been reckless driving.
New laws introduced last year have capped speeds at which public officials' chauffeurs can drive: up to 150km/h on motorways and 70km/h in towns.
14. Jan 2002 at 0:00 | Ed Holt