Is the concept of Polish road safety an oxymoron? Well, on the basis that when driving on Polish roads it is more usual than not to encounter morons with a bovine indifference to other road users behind the wheel (to say nothing of the occaisional oxen or, to be fair, cattle or horses) perhaps. Which is to say that one of the less attractive aspects of living in Poland is the generally poor standard of driving (and by writing poor I am being polite). And it seems that I am not alone.
Last week the Polish government announced the implementation of a new programme of road safely which will focus on the roads themselves and thereby, it is hoped, reduce the fatalities on the roads by 50 per cent by 2020 and the number of serious injuries from road traffic accidents by 40 per cent. In addition, it is intended to impose stiffer penalties for speeding and to improve law enforcement with police speeding checks being more frequent and with greater use of speed cameras. This should lead to some improvement because almost half of all accidents are caused by speeding. Although last year saw a 15.4 per cent decline in road deaths to a record low, that still resulted in 3,544 deaths and 36,763 accidents, with Poland’s road traffic mortality rates being among the highest in Europe and even accounting for 20 per cent of all EU pedestrian fatalities. Apart from the personal tragedies for those involved, there is a significant economic cost – some PLN 20 billion – in terms of medical costs, payments to the victims’ families and so on and this in an environment which has yet to see – thank goodness – the levels of personal injury litigation which feature elsewhere.
Why are Polish drivers generally so bad? Well, once behind the wheel, the guiding characteristic seems to be a fatal combination of stupidity, agression and lack of skill. This manifests itself most commonly in excessive speed and a general disregard for road markings with a light sprinkling not so much of “amber gambling” (Polish divers are far too clever for that) but of running red lights. And when all this actually results in an accident, the standard response is to blame the poor quality of the roads. This, of course, is partly a reflection of the Polish national habit of blaming every body else for life’s misfortunes rather than taking personal responsibility, and partly, amazingly, a genuinely held belief. I have argued with otherwise apparently intelligent folk that when road conditions are bad the sensible driver reduces speed and takes greater care only to be told – apparently in all seriousness – that the reason for the accidents is the bad roads. No, the reason is simple: stupidity.
Without doubt, there are some bad road layouts in Poland: for example, the lack of filter lanes for turning left across a two or three lane carriage way at busy junctions does create unnecessary hazards, but this is not an excuse for poor driving. Although the government does have a plan for major road upgrading and renovation, including improvements in signage, and will spend some PLN 18 billion over the next three of years, there still needs to be a change in drivers’ attitudes. Weaving in and out of traffic and changing lanes without signalling at high speed in town while speaking on a mobile telephone is all too common as is trying to turn right and change gear with one hand while holding a mobile phone in the other. And I say nothing of the poor lane discipline: why queue in the correct lane to turn right when you can shoot down the lane to go straight on, stop, signal right and block the traffic behind you until you have pushed your way in?
Apart from the urban areas, travelling on the major roads in the countryside, many of which are still single carriageway, is also not for the faint-hearted. Constant vigilance is needed to avoid the on-coming traffic that has strayed into your path while overtaking slower traffic on its side of the road. And as you move to the side of the road to avoid a head-on collision you must watch out for the afore-mentioned oxen, horses and carts, drunken cyclists and folk simply sitting there selling mushrooms or other seasonal produce. Indeed, is not unusual to see a car overtaking a slower vehicle itself being overtaken by an even faster car. When it suddenly dawns on these idiots that there is oncoming traffic they simply move to the right expecting other vehicles to slow down at the last minute to let them in. No wonder there are so many accidents: the tragedy is, of course, no that these drivers kill themselves (that is doing us a favour) but that they kill so many others through their stupidity. Ironically, following each 1st November when many Poles take to roads to visit their dead relatives’ graves, many new graves have to be dug as a result of the accidents on the roads. But, even if you survive the accident, let’s hope it was not with one of the many Polish drivers who drive illegally without insurance.
So, if the thought of taking your life, not so much in your hands as in the hands of the idiots around on the roads drives you to drink, fear not, for the average petrol station in Poland resembles nothing if not a well stocked off-licence with vodka and beer in abundance (and this despite Poland having much lower alcohol limits for driving than the UK). However, fear not, and take comfort from the fact that however much you drink, however quickly you drive, however many red lights you run, and however much you ignore road signals and other vehicles, on this particular road to perdition, the road is to blame.