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Polish highways: Europe's deathtrap

Poland's harrowing roads have dire consequences for both drivers and the economy.

Poland road deaths highway safety
Police work at the site of a bus crash on a highway near Poznan on July 22, 2007. (Karolina Sikorska/AFP/Getty Images)

WARSAW, Poland — As I was driving from Warsaw to Gdansk this week on a two-lane road, a silver Audi leaped past my car and accelerated to over 80 mph as we shot into a blind curve. Suddenly a truck lurched into view coming in the opposite direction — it was being passed by a black Volvo sedan.

The four vehicles passed within inches of each other. Such a scene might make an American blanch and grab for antacid tablets, but it is a normal occurrence on Poland's narrow and underdeveloped roads. That doesn't mean drivers here aren't paying a price.

Poland has the highest number of road deaths of all 27 European Union countries — 4,572 people were killed on the roads in 2009, a death rate of 120 for every million citizens. The EU average is 69 deaths per million.

“We are the red zone of Europe,” admitted Andrzej Wojciechowski, director of the Institute of Car Transport.

In an effort to deal with the problem, the police came up with a program called “Weekend Without Deaths” aimed at the first weekend of August, when Poles race to lakes and beaches. The program involved heavy promotion but its result was disappointing: 44 dead and 542 injured in 308 accidents around the country — the highest death total so far that summer.

“Unfortunately more people died that weekend than in previous weekends,” said Mariusz Sokolowski, spokesman for the Polish police. “Many drivers did not take our warnings to heart.”

Overall, 773 people were killed in car accidents this summer, and more than 10,000 were injured.

The two main reasons for the very high death rates are Polish drivers and Polish roads.

Polish drivers tend to be much more aggressive than their counterparts in western Europe. Many Poles grew up on underpowered communist cars, if they drove at all prior to 1989. Now, the vast majority of cars on the road are modern models, often bought second-hand from neighboring Germany, and many drivers are unused to driving such powerful cars. An additional factor is Poles' traditional disregard for laws and regulations — a holdover from their centuries under foreign occupation, when resisting rules was a patriotic duty. Such habits die hard.

Finally, the awful state of the roads prompts people to speed because normal travel is so frustrating.

“They may have less accidents in France and Germany, but that's because they have decent highways to drive on — you don't need to drive dangerously to get where you're going,” said Cezary Kazmierczak, a businessman.

A decade ago, Germany and France used to have many more road deaths than Poland — about 7,000 each. But in the intervening years, both countries have clamped down hard on driving behavior. The countries installed thousands of radar cameras that dispassionately send out millions of traffic tickets. The number of road deaths in both countries has fallen by about half.

But as Kazmierczak pointed out, Poland's awful roads compound the lack of enforcement.