This morning as I was making my way through the City, I had my first car accident. As I unnecessarily stopped at a red light (those lights are only suggestions, right?), the driver behind me hit me in the arse. I am fine except for a sore neck. Thanks Jeep Liberty! The other driver is fine too except for maybe a bruised ego. His car was significantly damaged but as it was a company car (a fleet car) he didn’t really seem to care. It was a bit of excitement I could definitely have done without. Accidents happen, but I am convinced this accident came down to a difference of driving culture. The other driver was sure that I was going to run the red light. That’s what his driving instinct told him from countless similar situations he had been in before.
When I first decided to drive in Poland, I thought it might be a good idea to take some informal driving lessons. I mean I knew how to drive. I have had my US license since I was 16 and it is valid here for tourists (after 6 months I should take the exam for a Polish license but so far my crime has gone unnoticed) but there are some different regulations here and a different driving culture. I took my lessons with a taxi driver (who’d know the roads better) Pan Jasiu (Mr. Johnny). First, we practiced different routes, basic point A to point B stuff avoiding any left-hand turns against traffic which I’d always hated. Next, we started on short-cuts, pot-hole slalom and traffic jam escape routes. After that, Pan Jasiu reminded to look out for trams, pedestrians (they are everywhere here, I mean who walks anyway!!), cyclists, motorcyclists, roundabouts and the still mysterious main/not main. When I finally felt ready, I hit the roads solo and just like my first ride on the tram alone I felt pride…until I got home and saw that the belt of my jacket had been sticking out the door and dragging in the snow all the way home. Those had not been looks of envy from the cold masses at the bus stop but rather amusement at the female driver oblivious to the ruining of her jacket.
The more I drove, the braver I became and when I had more time I tried out alternative routes around the city. My first routes strictly followed bus and tram routes as my orientation of the city was as a pedestrian and frequent user of public transportation. I tried my best to adapt, you know, '”when in Rome…” and that was my biggest mistake. I realized it as one of my students known for his speeding called me from the car behind me to tell me to slow down (I know, I answered the phone while driving too). I did slow down and it really got me thinking.
Not long after that we went to the US for Christmas. As my husband was marveling the “black” roads on the 26th of December after a huge Christmas Day snowstorm (the roads in Poland would be “white” until the first thaw no matter what day the snowstorm occurred) I was busy tailgating a hummer driving the speed limit. She was blowing her fingernails dry and driving the speed limit! How dare she! Misiu informed me that I was an aggressive driver, tailgating was a crime and that somebody would call the police on me. I asked him how he knew all that and he replied that a billboard had told him so. That was the last day of my short career as an aggressive driver.
Now, I drive carefully and defensively keeping in mind different situations that could take place on the roads. It is true that the road conditions in Poland are much poorer than the US and that cars are older but let’s not get carried away. Our driving behavior contributes a lot to the accident statistics. Why do people drive more dangerously here? I’m not sure why. I ask myself almost every weekend when for the thousandth time someone overtakes another car and is approaching me and my family head-on at excessive speed. Maybe Polish people love the thrill of it. Maybe after crawling along at 10 km an hour behind a septic tank truck, they cannot resist the urge to let loose. Maybe Polish people feel that they do not have as much to lose. Who knows? I know that I have done my part to improve the driving culture by ending my aggressive ways. Safe driving! Szerokiej drogi.