Polish highways: Europe's deathtrap

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.

The road from Warsaw to Gdansk narrows from four lanes to two about 30 miles north of the Polish capital. Then, clogged with transport trucks and thousands of aggressive cars, it winds through small towns and villages, interrupted by traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalks.

As well as being partly responsible for more than 50,000 deaths over the last decade, Poland's terrible roads have scared away foreign investors and slowed economic growth. No government in the last 20 years has done a good job of building new highways, but the current centrist government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk has made some pretty heady predictions about the state of Poland's roads by 2012, the year that Poland co-hosts the European soccer championships.

The government vowed that fans would be able to drive on 1,000 miles of highways (of which more than 600 miles were to be newly built) and 1,500 miles of slightly lower quality express roads (of which 1,250 miles were to be freshly completed).

But now it looks as those promises made two years ago will be well off the mark. This year, no new highways are scheduled to be handed over for drivers to use. By the time the championships start, it looks as though only about a third of the promised express roads will be built, and the highway system, particularly the crucial north-south A1, running from Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to the Czech border, will have large gaps that will be completed as late as 2015.

This summer, Radoslaw Sierpien, the deputy minister of infrastructure, clambered onto a bicycle and rode the 122 miles that will be missing from the A1 highway in 2012. He was making good on his lost bet that the government would be able to meet its construction deadline.

The surprisingly fit minister did manage to cycle the distance in one day — but that remains cold comfort to Polish drivers trapped on dangerous roads for the foreseeable future.