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Can Poland rein in its deadly drivers?

Nov. 1, or All Saints' Day, is a major holiday in Poland – and also one of the deadliest days of the year for motorists, as speeders and drunk drivers hit the road.

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A woman cleans a grave at Powazki Cemetery on the eve of All Saints' Day in Warsaw last year. All Saints' Day is a major holiday in Poland, but is also one of the worst days of the year for driving accidents.

Peter Andrews/Reuters/File

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If history is any indicator, tomorrow will be one of the deadliest days of 2013 on Polish roads.

Nov. 1 is All Saints' Day, one of the major religious and national holidays in Poland, during which millions travel to graveyards to pay their respects to the departed.

But driving a car during the holiday is a stressful experience. Roads are full of both speeders and Sunday drivers. What is worse, some of them will drive back home later after a few drinks. According to police statistics, all that makes All Saints' Day one of the most dangerous days to be on the road in Poland, which has one of the worst road mortality rates in Europe.

The Polish government is looking to change that, and believes it can halve the number of deaths on the roads by 2020.

And it can take lessons from all over Europe in achieving that goal: by slowing speeders like the Finnish and French, fighting drunk drivers like the Dutch, building roads like those in Sweden, and making drivers think like they were Brits.

A dangerous drive

Last year, during the four days surrounding All Saints' Day in Poland, 36 people were killed and almost 2,000 drunk drivers were caught by the police. And in 2012 alone, some 3,500 died on the roads, according to police statistics. That gave Poland a road mortality rate of 94 deaths per million citizens, almost double the European average of 55.

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There are many reasons for that. After the fall of communism in 1989, Poles changed their cars for faster ones, but not necessarily safer. Today, there are three times more vehicles on Polish roads than 20 years ago. But the roads remain in bad condition, particularly in comparison to Western Europe, and the culture of driving has worsened.

Speeding is a main reason for the frequency of deaths on Polish roads. Police and the government are convinced that major changes in the traffic laws are necessary to stop speeders.

According to a new proposal, anyone who drives 50 km/h (30 m.p.h.) over the speed limit will lose their driver's license for three months. Fines will also be more hefty, up to 2,000 Polish zlotys ($640). The bill could be presented to the parliament next year.

But international observers warn that the fines will be insignificant for rich people, a problem that Finland and Switzerland have tuned their laws to target: by making fines not flat rates, but rather based on a driver's income.

New roadblocks to speeders

“The wealthy should suffer as much as the poor when it comes to crime,” says Antero Lammi, education manager at Liikenneturva, Central Organization for Traffic Safety, in Helsinki, Finland.

Fines in Finland are calculated on the basis of net monthly income using taxation data for the previous year. Police, when they catch a violator, use cellular phones to tap into official tax records – which are open to the public – to calculate the fine. The current record believed to be a $190,000 ticket in 2004.

From time to time, Polish politicians have considered such an approach to scare the wealthy scofflaws who ignore the tickets. Graziella Jost of the Brussels-based European Transport Safety Council says this kind of solution has worked successfully in Finland and Switzerland.

“But in road safety, the devil is in the details. Higher fines won't solve the problem, you need more cameras and the policemen on the roads to make the system work,” says Ms. Jost. "During Jacques Chirac's presidency, the French government put more cameras on the roads and at the same time decreased the speed limit by 10 km/h (6 m.p.h.). That saved the lives of around 8,000 people, in the period from 2001 to 2009.”

Cameras have been extensively used in Poland since 2011. But despite that, many people still speed, and not only in Poland. European institutions are thinking about new ideas how to force drivers to slow down.

"Intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) systems are now being tested, in which, for example, a road sign sends a car a special signal that makes it impossible to drive faster than the limit, or ... makes it harder to hit the accelerator when you drive over the speed limit,” says Ilona Butler from the Motor Transport Institute in Warsaw.

Alcolocks

Drinking while driving is the second leading cause of accidents and deaths on the roads in the EU, and some researchers are thinking about taking a mechanical approach, like ISA systems, to the problem.

Most European nations carry a standard of 0.05 percent for blood alcohol content (BAC) limit, or lower. In Poland, it's 0.02 percent, a few countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance policies. When Sweden decreased BAC from 0.05 to 0.02 percent in 1990, the proportion of alcohol-related fatalities declined, from 31 percent in 1989 to 18 percent in 1997.

To that end, they are thinking about new, easier to use alcohol interlock systems, or "alcolocks," which prevent cars from working at all without a breathalyzer-type test.

Since 2011 in the Netherlands, motorists convicted of drunk driving have to have alcolocks fitted to their cars. Drivers have to blow into a small device fitted to the dashboard to prove they haven't been drinking before the engine will start. These have to be repeated several times during the journey. Drunk drivers who refuse to do so are banned from driving for five years. Alcolocks are used also in Sweden.

Various international studies show between 65 and 90 percent fewer repeat offenses for users of an alcolock than for drivers with a suspended driving license or a revocation. In the initial years of the Swedish alcolock program, not one of the participants was caught drunk-driving again.

"Some transport companies in Sweden advertise themselves by saying that all their cars have alcolocks," says Ms. Butler.

Holistic thinking

But some countries are not stopping at modifying cars; some are looking to change the whole driving experience to promote greater safety. Sweden, for example, has improved road infrastructure, creating many new one-way streets to reduce head-on crashes.

Poland has also constructed new roads, thanks to EU funding, in the last few years. But a lot more needs to be done. “The traffic law is full of paradoxes, the amount of signs on the Polish roads is also confusing drivers,” says Wlodzimierz Zientarski, a car-and-driving journalist and president of the driving-safety society Kierowca.pl.

Maybe, a solution for this could be “shared space,” an approach developed by Ben Hamilton-Baillie and Hans Monderman ten years ago, which puts drivers, pedestrians, and other commuters into the same space, forcing them to be more aware of each other, and thus more cooperative. “Shared space fosters the informal negotiations and development of social protocols that are intrinsic to human interaction,” explains Mr. Hamilton-Baillie.

The British town of Poynton is among those who have recently signed up for the “shared space” concept, which involves removing traffic signs, lights, and in some cases, road markings. Though not useful for highways, the concept should benefit urban communities, says Hamilton-Baillie.

“Pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers are much less at risk when speeds drop into the human-evolved speed context of below about 22 m.p.h. Congestion reduction arises from the much more efficient operation of intersections at low speeds, where signals and time-wasting controls can be removed,” he says.

But the number of crashes on the roads is not only a result of speeding and drinking or bad infrastructure, says Andrzej Markowski from The Society of Traffic Psychologists in Warsaw. “It also depends, in some way, on the nationality and economic and political condition of driver's country,” says Mr. Markowski.

“In London, when a driver sees a pedestrian who wants to walk on the crosswalk, he stops. In Warsaw, the strongest wins, usually the driver. In Moscow, a policeman asks a pedestrian who has been hit by a car why the hell he wanted to walk there.”

It's a simplification, Markowski says, but “in democratic countries, those with a real social equality, we see more respect to the traffic laws and to other road users,” he Markowski. “Let me see how you drive, and I will tell you who you are.”


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