One For The road, or Whacky Races

Polish road safety – is it an oxymoron, given that when driving on Polish roads it is not unusual to encounter morons who have a bovine indifference to other road users behind the wheel? Nobody who has spent any time in Poland cannot fail to have noticed the generally poor standard of driving here, and I’m trying to be polite.

Why is this? Well, once behind the wheel, the guiding characteristic of our typical driver seems to be a fatal combination of stupidity, aggression 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, which must always be approached at the highest speed possible. And when the wholly avoidable accident occurs, the standard response – even amongst otherwise intelligent folk – is to blame the poor quality of the roads. This partly reflects the Polish national characteristic of blaming everybody else for life’s misfortunes (alright, the Russians, and the Germans, and the British, and,well you know …). Amazingly, it’s a genuinely held belief. When road conditions are bad, the sensible driver reduces speed but the Polish driver ploughs on regardless, safe in the knowledge that it is all the fault of the road.

Without doubt, there are plenty of poor road layouts eg., the lack of filter lanes in Warsaw for turning left across a two or three-lane carriageway at busy junctions which does indeed create unnecessary hazards, but this is not really an excuse for poor driving. Weaving in and out of traffic and changing lanes at high speed without signalling while speaking on a mobile is all too common, as is trying to turn right and change gear with one hand while holding a mobile phone in the other. To say nothing about the poor lane discipline: why queue in the correct lane to turn right when you can shoot down the lane designated for going straight ahead, stop, signal right, and block the traffic behind you until you have pushed your way in?

Another favourite when waiting at the lights is to block the traffic trying to emerge from side roads or to move at right angles to the line of queuing traffic. The thought process is clear: if I hold back and don’t block I might add five minutes to my journey, but if I advance and cause a jam I will add an hour to everybody else’s journey, so I will be 55 minutes ahead! This I think is the essence of the psyche which is at work here. And, if you are a woman, what about some of that fabled multi-tasking? Why just drive when you can look in the mirror and apply make-up at the same time. Male drivers, they’re so limited!

Remember, indicators are not to be used to signal a movement to right or to left. No, these manoeuvres are to be performed at the very last moment without the use of any signalling whatsoever, ideally accompanied by a sudden loss of speed. Indicators are to be used only while standing in a filter lane or to indicate a bend in the road, when it is clear that there is nowhere else to go and the signal is thus redundant.

Away from Warsaw, travelling on the major roads in the country, many of which are still single carriageway, is also not for the faint-hearted. Constant vigilance is needed to avoid the oncoming traffic that has strayed into your path while overtaking slower traffic on its side of the road. Indeed, it is not unusual to see a car overtaking a slower vehicle, itself being overtaken by an even faster car. As you move to the side of the road to avoid a head-on collision, do watch out for the horses and carts, drunken cyclists, and folk sitting there selling mushrooms or other seasonal produce, because they won’t be moving.

If the thought of taking your life, not so much in your hands as placing it in those of the idiots around you 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 (this despite Poland having very a virtually nil alcohol limit for driving). Take comfort in 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, the road is always to blame.

This piece originally appeared in The Varsovian, where an audio version is also available.

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