Sunday, 4 September 2016

Accidents will happen

I have held the driving licence for 10 years, I have used a car on a daily basis for five years on; the two last years were the period of more intense business travels, taken also by car, my own old Megane or company cars, meaning over the last two years I covered around 35,000 kilometres behind the wheel; on top of another 35,000 kilometres driven over previous eight years.

Driving instructors argue a typical driver has an accident during their first equator’s length (roughly 40,000 kilometres) of driving. Over that time I had one minor traffic collision, oddly enough not impacting my insurance track record, besides since October 2012 my track record behind the wheel has been impeccable, except for scratching right-rear wing in five weeks ago. I rubbed against a lamp post while parking parallel.

I varnished the eye-popping aftermaths of my haste and inattention, yet the scrape slightly dented my self-confidence, which after all should do more harm than good. Lesson learnt – I should be more cautious. Nevertheless, I did not change my mind and did not find driving on Polish roads dangerous, until last seven days, when I nearly had three serious accidents, none I would have been guilty of, yet they could have ended up with serious injuries.

Last Sunday on ul. Słowackiego (Warszawa Żoliborz), I changed lanes from right to middle and noticed an iffy driver in Honda City on left lane. I somehow foresaw he was an unpredictable motorist and braced for his manoeuvre of changing lanes from left to middle nearly ending in hitting the side of my car. Having cars on both sides, but no vehicle behind me, I pushed the brake to the floor and avoided the collision. Fortunately my passengers kept a cool head and did not scream (I still remember the attack of panic of my three female colleagues in November 2015, when somewhere between Płońsk and Sierpc our car was hit by an ice slab flying off the roof of a truck ahead of us (no damage to the vehicle to my surprise)).

On Wednesday as I drove up ul. Puławska, I nearly fell victim to kinked lanes and foolish driver on the intersection with Baletowa. He followed the swinging lanes before the intersection but behind it he drove straight ahead, cutting in on me, moving properly up the right lane. I swerved into the lane for buses marked out before intersection with ul. Pelikanów, thus avoiding bumping into meathead-driven Mazda 6.

The most scary narrow escape struck me the next day. I was on the slip road from Dolinka Służewiecka (westbound lanes) into ul. Puławska (southbound lanes). I spotted a ZTM bus running at the lane west of the viaduct carrying the traffic from ul. Puławska into Dolinka Służewiecka, but glimpsing to the left I failed to notice its driver was speeding (70 kmph) while I did at around 45 kmph. Where the slip road and the right-most lane of ul. Puławska met, he immediately began changing lanes into mine, not minding I was there and. to make it worse, not minding there was a cyclist (cyclists should be prohibited from riding such roads and she should have safety cycled down the pavement on the other side of ul. Puławska!) on the same (mine) lane. The presence of the cyclist (still wonder whether she realised what was going on, since she seemed to be totally unaware how dangerous the situation was) left me fewer room to move rightwards, while an idiot in BMW just behind my rear bumper left little room for abrupt braking. I slowed down gently, trying to keep minimum 20 centimetres from the bus side and the cyclist and managed. Only with hindsight I realised what near miss it was.

It occurred to me it would have been safer to travel by bus. The next day while driving towards Park and Ride Metro Ursynów I drove 75 kmph and kept a steady distance from a 331 bus. Indeed, both bus driver and I were speeding, however the difference in magnitude of our sins that I would stop my car (including time to reaction and stopping distance) within 50 metres and fastened belts would protect me, while the bus driver would probably stop after more than 100 metres and many passengers would be injured. In retrospect, I regret not having reported that incident to ZTM.

Speed and alcohol rank among the most frequent accident causes in Poland, yet the list should be supplemented with other sins of drivers, seldom mentioned…

Firstly, not looking around. Wing mirrors and rear view mirror help the driver control situation around them. If you know what is going on around, you immediately know whether you can swerve (this facilitates controlling the blind spot as well) or suddenly brake. Looking around involves also watching out for vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians or animals that might trespass onto the road.

Secondly, not foreseeing. As one gains experience behind the wheel, more situations become predictable and consequently, accidents avoided.

Thirdly, pushing one’s luck. Sounds ridiculously, but several drivers count they will make it (finish overtaking by forcing other drivers to brake or swerve, violating the right of way by assessing another driver will skim on their brakes to avoid a collision etc.). Even in 99% instances it works, the remaining 1% results in increased number or casualties and fatalities on Polish roads.

Fourthly, not keeping proper distance. The reasons why rear-endings are so common are not just speed or lapses of concentration. The dire effects of the above would not lead to so many incidences of bumping into rear of a car ahead, had the proper distance been kept.

Fifthly, tiredness. Fatigued, drowsy drivers can display similar reactions as intoxicated drivers. I should also tack on over-using mobile phones when behind the wheel as fumbling with them also worsen drivers’ concentration.

Sixthly, technical condition of vehicles on Polish roads. I do not want to gripe about the average age of vehicles on Polish roads, declining, yet still above eleven years. I have a 13-year-old car and I take care of it to ensure travelling by it is safe. Poles drive what they afford to but the owner or user is always to blame. Nearly brand-new (aged less than 3Y) vehicles from corporate fleets, if they are not looked after properly (believe me or not, 3Y post-lease cars are frequently rickety bangers), are in far worse technical condition that my car.

And #7, cyclists and pedestrians ignorant of perils in traffic or even traffic rules. Starry-eyed traffic participants not realising if they have right of way, for the sake of their own safety they should not exercise it at all cost and that fault of a car driver is not an excuse. What I hold most against cyclists is: (1) riding on fast-traffic roads (speed limits at or above 70 kmph), (2) choosing to take a road, where there is a decent cycling path running parallel to the road, (3) not sticking to the right thus hindering overtaking. What I hold most against pedestrians is that they (1) can stand (or hang around) next to a pedestrian crossing with no intention to cross a street, (2) cross streets where they are not allowed to without even looking whether a vehicle is going to smash them into pulp.

I have mulled over installing a dashboard camera in my next car, not for the purpose Russians put them up (to prove they are not guilty of an accident) but to keep record of on-going horror on the Polish roads. So far, I keep up with Polskie Drogi channel on YouTube and hold it dear. Watching the compilations of accidents helps me learn from others’ mistakes, adds to my experience and enhances my predictive skills. The scenes by Polskie Drogi often prove many accidents could have been averted, had somebody thought beforehand or foreseen other traffic participants’ crass stupidity.

Dangers on the road must not be shrugged off, yet this is the risk one should manage. Driving cautiously does not guarantee you will return safe and sound from every journey, yet minimises the chances of having an accident.


Michael Dembinski said...

A good post - cause and effect. The bus is the safest form of road transport on account of its mass; the idiot in the BMW slams into the back, and it is the BMW that suffers. That earth's circumference idea is based on the time taken to get complacent. "I've done 40,000km - I'm a safe driver, I can allow myself to switch off Total Situational Awareness mode and..."

In the UK, driving instructors teach MSM - Mirror Signal Manoeuvre - and Anticipate, Anticipate, Anticipate. Here too? Somehow doubt it :-)

student SGH said...

Who's getting who wrong here?

A bus is statistically safer than a car (compare number of casualties and fatalities of accidents involving buses and passnger cars), but on account of its mass bus has much longer stopping distance, therefore your claim holds true as long as a bus driver has their head screwed in. Plus lack of belts to fasten (impracticable in city buses) mean in case of abrupt braking passenger are likely to suffer injuries.

The idiot in BMW would have its Burak Ma Wózek crashed, but remember rear-ending is very dangerous for neck of rear-ended vehicle's passengers. Besides in my story there was a cyclist who could have been hit by my rear-ended car. Circumstances were far more complex...

Hang on, the theory I referred to stated that within 40,000 a driver has their first accident, so gets a bucket of cold water spilt on their heads and this may prevent them from growing too complacent.

What I remember from my driving course taken in 2006 is that instructors teach how to pass the driving exam, because this is what they are paid for. I remember also hints on how actual driving differs from habits developed to pass the exam. Besides, what can you learn during 30 hours of driving lessons? The driving licence is just a document entitling you to continue learning to drive on your own (though with hindsight I appreciate my father did not let me drive anywhere alone for the first two years of occasional driving).