The U.N. Economic Commission for Europe has issued a series of recommendations to improve safety and security in tunnels throughout Europe.
A group of European road and safety experts was formed after dramatic accidents caused the closure of the Mont Blanc and Tauern tunnels more than two years ago.
In March, 1999, a truck caught fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel between Chamonix, France and Aosta, Italy. The blaze spread rapidly, killing 39 people. In May 1999, a collision took place in the Tauern tunnel in Austria, killing 12 people. Two months ago, another fatal accident occurred in the St. Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland.
The experts say there is no absolute safety, sooner or later something will happen to cause an accident.
U.N. Economic Commission for Europe Transport Division Director Jose Capel Ferrer says the experts recommend periodic information campaigns.
"It is important that users who are never confronted with an accident or a fire in a tunnel know what to do in case of an accident. In the Mont Blanc, one of the lessons that can be drawn is that many people lost their lives because they did not leave their vehicles as soon as there was smoke," Mr. Capel said.
The recommendations deal with tunnels that are more than one kilometer long. Europe has more than 700 such tunnels. The longest one in Norway is 24.5 kilometers.
The U.N. experts suggest drivers of commercial vehicles be tested every five years. Mr. Ferrer says it is crucial that periodic fire drills be carried out in tunnels.
"We also consider it very important that the time of access of emergency services be as short as possible. This is extremely important in the case of accidents in the tunnel. If there is a fire and you take it in the beginning, five minutes, 10 minutes after the initiation of the fire, you can easily control it. After five, 10 minutes it will become impossible to control and then lead to serious consequences," he said.
The experts say heavy-duty vehicles should have fire extinguishers. Currently, only coaches are equipped with them.
They stress the need to adopt uniform standards on tunnel safety throughout Europe. They note drivers increasingly cross many borders and need to be governed by the same rules.