Poland’s roads rank among the most dangerous in the EU, while neighbor Lithuania has taken great strides to reduce death and mayhem on the highways. From Gazeta Wyborcza.

Lithuania’s success in bringing down the number of traffic deaths shows that speeding tickets are not the only efficient solution to reduce the number of car accidents. Over the past few years, traffic rules have grown harsher, but Lithuanian drivers have been compensated with better road infrastructure: drivers no longer have to rush and can simply enjoy the ride.

Motorway junction in Gliwice, Silesia, Poland. Image by Mikołaj Welon vel Welones/Wikimedia Commons.

Lithuania is often lauded as a model country of disciplined, respectful drivers. Its larger neighbor Poland, on the other hand, regularly records some of the worst road accident statistics in Europe. How did this come to pass?

Let’s start with a picture.

It’s a late November afternoon. Several dozen people mill about in front of the Lithuanian prime minister’s office. Some carry banners with slogans: “Educate, don’t punish!” and “The government is robbing drivers.” Someone starts screaming “Thieves!” and a few others join in. An hour later, everyone goes home.

This is how the only protest by Lithuanian drivers against further changes to the highway code ended, four years ago, some five years after the country began rewriting the highway code and the road network. Jonas Maleckis, co-owner of a transportation company in Vilnius, helped organize the protest. “I treated the change of the regulations as a blow to drivers,” he says. “There are situations when you have to step on the pedal and minor speeding is not a crime. This is what I thought back then.”

Mortality on Lithuanian roads peaked between 2006 and 2008. At that time about 750 people per year were killed in accidents. “For a country with 3 million citizens, this is a dramatic toll,” says Jaroslav Narkevic, the current minister of transport and communications.

At that time the highway code in Lithuania was considered to be one of the most relaxed in Europe. The subsequent changes included not only improvements to infrastructure but also a long-term plan to tighten regulations. At the outset, the penalty for the most serious offenses was increased; drivers could now lose their licenses. Speed cameras started to be installed in large numbers. Sweden provided a model for many new regulations, Narkevic says. “We also tried to adapt their mechanisms to our conditions. The harshness of speeding tickets was also adjusted to average salaries in Lithuania.”

The government that came to power in 2016 introduced further changes to the regulations.More severe penalties came into force for offenses such as passing at an intersection or pedestrian crossing, failing to yield, and improperly joining traffic. “Road safety is not a matter of opinion. The whole political class has risen to the challenge,” says Narkevic, who became transport minister in 2019.

Changes to the highway code were introduced systematically, at regular intervals of a year or a year and a half. Almost every step was hyped with a public information campaign. One catchphrase pleaded, “Stop the war on the roads,” likening the scale of traffic-related injuries to an armed conflict, not only to prick drivers’ consciences but also to show the importance and the benefit of the proposed changes.

At the same time, in order to sweeten the restrictions and to eliminate the age-old argument that bad road conditions encourage risky behavior, Lithuanians worked on a more friendly infrastructure. “We were inspired by other countries, including Poland,” the minister recalls, noting how the Poles learned how to manage international truck traffic.

Tough Penalties

Since the reforms kicked in, the graph of deaths on Lithuanian roads has flattened. The number of traffic fatalities fell from 302 in 2012,to 267 in 2014, and 192 in 2016. Last year, only 66 people lost their lives on Lithuanian roads. Government measures clearly helped bring this about. In 2015, among other things, the penalty for running a red light was increased from 26 euros ($31) to 60 euros ($70). Driving without valid car insurance now brings a fine of 120 instead of 34 euros.

The small crowd of protesters who gathered that day in front of the prime minister’s office were mainly incensed about lower speed limits.

“Drivers have to take responsibility for every kilometer they cover,” Arturas Pakenas, one of Lithuania’s most famous driving instructors, said in 2016. “The difference between 60 and 80 kilometers per hour is huge. People are very surprised when we show them how much the braking distance increases when they are driving even five kilometers per hour above the limit.”

Today, the severity of the ticket is based on a simple principle: the faster you go, the more you pay. Each kilometer above the limit costs 6 to 8 euros. For example, a driver who exceeds the limit by 20 kilometers per hour will pay a 30 euro fine. Exceeding the speed limit by 30 kilometers an hour brings the fine to 90 euros, by 50 kilometers an hour to 230 euros, and so on. The maximum penalty is 550 euros – if you are an experienced driver of a passenger car. Motorcyclists, truck drivers, and drivers with less than two years of experience have to add about 40 percent to these fines, with a maximum penalty of 700 euros. That is not far below the average Lithuanian’s monthly wage.

“Meanwhile, in Poland the upper limit of the speeding ticket has not changed since 1997,” notes Lukasz Zboralski, head of the road safety portal brd24.pl. “It’s still at 500 zlotys [$132]. At that time this amount was equal to 127 percent of the minimum wage, but today it is only 17 percent.”

Highway in Lithuania. Image by Kusurija/Wikimedia Commons.

Drunk driving in Lithuania now brings a fine of about 800 euros and a three-year driving ban.

20 or 30 Cops on the Road

Polish sanctions, although not so severe, can also be painful: for instance the loss of a driving license for exceeding the speed limit in a built-up area by 50 kilometers per hour and for driving under the influence. Passing before a pedestrian crossing can be punished with a maximum of 10 penalty points. Committing two such offenses can mean losing your license. And yet passing at pedestrian crossings is still a daily phenomenon in Poland.

Perhaps Lithuanians would not take draconian fines so seriously if they remained merely on paper. To give a counter-example, you can drive the length and breadth of Poland at 10 or even 20 kilometers per hour over the limit and still be constantly passed by SUVs traveling at 130 or 150 kilometers per hour. Police are nowhere to be seen. In Lithuania the rules have been enforced thanks to the use of traffic monitoring systems and unmarked police cars patrolling the main roads, according to drivers.

Grzegorz Sakson, the president of the Polish Lawyers Association in Lithuania, says publicly shaming violators has helped make the roads safer.

“Mass sobriety checks were introduced. Between 20 and 30 policemen patrol a single road, stopping each driver. Journalists are invited to accompany the police during such checks. If someone is caught, they will be shown on TV,” he says.

“To make drivers understand that it is not about their money but about safety, the police did not immediately impose the highest penalties for minor violations,” Narkevic explains. “At first, the drivers could count on just a warning with an explanation about what they did wrong. But there is no mercy for speeding and drunk driving.”

Even skeptics acknowledge that the rules have worked.

“The effects of these rules are clear to see,” Jonas Maleckis, who had organized the earlier protest, admits. “Within a few years, we managed to get rid of those drivers who were speeding and caused most of the deadly accidents.”

Pakenas, the driving instructor, thinks the mortality rate came down “because those who were extreme speeders and some of those driving under the influence have disappeared from the roads.” He continues: “Now we have to deal with other factors that cause accidents. The penalties and restrictions have done their job but accidents are not just the result of thoughtlessness or bravado, rather a combination of many factors.”

The government will continue to refine the rules, Narkevic says.

“We are planning to introduce a new control system for drivers who use phones while driving. This is one of the more common causes of serious accidents today. And we want to implement a dynamic speed management system. We will install electronic road signs to deliver information about the speed limit depending on the road conditions,” he says.

Poland in Third-to-Last Place

It’s a Sunday afternoon in October. Warsaw’s Bielany district. Adam, Magdalena, and their three-year-old son are on their way to a playground. The pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Socrates and Petofi streets has no traffic lights. The road is divided by a traffic island. Adam walks half a step in front of his wife, who pushes their son in a pram. At the crossing, one driver lets them cross the street but the orange BMW in the second lane, not slowing down, hits Adam at high speed. He dies in front of his family.

A mid-June evening in the Ursus district. An Opel makes a left turn from the main street. A motorcyclist traveling quickly in the opposite direction collides with the car. The driver is thrown 100 meters (328 feet) and dies on the spot.

End of May, late evening in the capital’s Mokotow district. A Nissan driving down three-lane Pulawska street loses control and the vehicle wraps itself around a lamppost. In order to recover the body, firemen had to cut off the whole roof.

These are just a few of the traffic deaths recorded in Warsaw in recent months. A complete list would be huge, as there are about 3,000 deaths on the Polish roads every year.

In 2019, the EU average for road deaths stood at 51 per million inhabitants. Poland, with 77 per million, occupied third-from-last place. According to the latest European Commission report, only Bulgaria and Romania recorded higher figures.

The Commission notes that traffic deaths fell by 23 percent across the bloc in the past decade. Poland managed to reduce its grim statistic by 26 percent, but Lithuania, ranked fifth best in the report, brought its road deaths down by 38 percent, bringing commendations from the Commission three years in a row.

Tougher Penalties in Poland?

Jan Mencwel, head of  a Warsaw citizen’s group called The City Is Ours, thinks dangerous driving is part of the Polish political landscape. “Polish politicians, including the previous ruling parties, as well as a part of society, consider road fatalities as a cost of increasing traffic,” he says. “A smooth ride and good roads do not have to decrease road safety, but our political class is used to giving concessions and compromises on issues other than strictly ideological ones. Maybe now that Poland will have three years without any planned elections, the problem will be taken more seriously,” he adds hopefully.

Lukasz Zboralski is willing to give drivers more credit. He believes the stagnation in the Polish road regulations results mainly from the unsubstantiated fears of those in power. “Politicians still think that drivers will treat the introduction of more severe penalties as a form of oppression and will shift their political sympathies toward their opponents. This mindset comes straight from the 1990s, and the reality has changed a lot in the meantime. Numerous initiatives such as citizens’ movements and associations campaigning for road safety have started and, above all, the awareness of those on the roads has greatly increased.”

According to a survey commissioned last year by the Polish government, four-fifths of respondents were in favor of higher speeding fines and 95 percent said the penalties for driving under the influence should be harsher.

Professional drivers are willing to cut the politicians some slack, up to a point.

“We will not protest against increasing penalties as long as the same rules apply to politicians. If an MP [parliamentary deputy] breaks the rules and gets away with it using his immunity, ordinary citizens have the right to rebel,” says Jan Buczek, head of the Association of International Road Carriers in Poland.

In his opinion, as penalties become more severe, the authorities should pay attention to the way current speed limits are imposed. “In Poland we are facing the problem of too many road signs. Sometimes, in the space of a few hundred meters, there are three signs with different speed limits on the same road.”

Add to that the huge number of other signs informing drivers about the right of way, lane closures, local road conditions, and so on. Theoretically, a well-educated driver should be able to instinctively see the most essential signs, but it can be challenging to do so when a few dozen signs flash past over  a short distance. This is largely a result of the highway code, according to which every intersection cancels a previous  restriction or speed limit. This means the signs must be repeated after every junction.

Zboralski argues that the best tool to reduce road mortality is better infrastructure. “But such changes should be implemented systematically, throughout Poland, based on uniform rules, while currently it looks ad hoc and random – just like after the accident on Socrates Street in Warsaw. It took a tragedy for the road to be equipped with speed bumps.”

Unmet Promises

After that tragedy, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pledged to punish drivers who exceed the speed limit by 50 kilometers per hour in both built-up and undeveloped areas by taking away their licenses;  to enact a universal 50-kilometer per hour limit in built-up areas, both day and night; and to extend the automatic right of way to pedestrians approaching, as well as in, crossings. In response, a group of legislators set up a “parliamentary team to defend drivers’ rights,” mostly composed of politicians of the ruling, conservative Law and Justice party and the right-wing Confederation Liberty and Independence.

The current minister of infrastructure in Morawiecki’s government, Andrzej Adamczyk, has tried to avoid taking a stance in the debate about road safety. When I sent the ministry spokesman Szymon Huptys a list of road safety measures applied in Lithuania within the last decade and statistics confirming their effectiveness, he eventually replied, “It is not possible to talk about this subject.”

I sent the same materials to the ministry’s National Road Safety Council. Despite a few emails and phone calls asking to talk to experts I was sent back to the ministry.

Michal Szczerba, vice-chair of the parliamentary group for road safety and a prominent member of the leading opposition party Civic Platform, is more willing to talk. “Lithuania has shown the determination that we lack. Our neighbor’s methods are an important point of reference, although there are no simple recipes in this area; the ‘copy-paste’ principle does not apply,” he points out.

“We can certainly follow the Lithuanian example in terms of changing the fines. … In the case of particularly dangerous offenses, a fast process in the courts is needed. It is worth considering introducing a new crime of vehicular homicide.”

“Let’s sit down at a roundtable and talk about road safety,” Szczerba adds. “Politicians from all sides and experts should take part in these talks. We are ready to work on a solution beyond political divisions.”

Minister Adamczyk did not reply to questions on whether he would organize a roundtable or whether he intends to introduce any changes to highway regulations.

Kacper Sulowski is a journalist with the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, where a version of this article originally appeared. He covers legal issues, the military, and human rights. Translated by Sebastian Filip.