Driving Me Insane – Slovakia & Road Angst: Look Out!

If you value your life, my advice is to avoid driving on two lane highways in Slovakia. If you are going to drive there anyway, here is another piece of unsolicited advice, drive in an extremely aggressive manner.

What Lies Beneath – Slovaks & Road Angst
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending three days traveling around Central Slovakia, including the Low Tatras region. The base for this trip was the delightful city of Banska Bystrica. It has a really nice old town area, which includes several impressive churches and one unknown leaning tower. The leaning clock tower of Banska Bystrica, does not have the cachet as the leaning tower of Pisa, but nonetheless the tower’s slight tilt is noticeable. Banska Bystrica makes a good base to explore further afield, especially for winter sports, historic mining towns and folk villages in the nearby mountains. The only problem is getting to these places. This is not because the roads are bad, far from it. From what I experienced of Slovakia’s highways, even those in the remoter reaches of the countryside, could be rated anywhere from good to excellent. The main highways are smooth and relatively new. The only problem was Slovak drivers.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between the Slovak people and their driving techniques. One recent survey declared that Slovaks were the most humble people in all of Europe. This perhaps has something to do with their folk roots and the fact that until the 20th century they were without a nation to call their own. They are helpful, quiet, generous and pleasant. They really do not seem to have any major vices. That is until you have to drive on the highway with them. Underneath a veneer of patience and tolerance seethes a level of fathomless road angst.

Highway through the Low Tatras in central Slovakia

The Low Tatras in central Slovakia are beautiful but the roads can be treacherous – because of the weather and the drivers

A National Past Time – Vehicular Chicken
On two lane highways, Slovaks come roaring up behind you, shoving their car fenders within spitting distance of the trunk. They then ride your bumper until they have a window in which to make a pass. Five seconds will suffice for these high risk addicts. Sometimes it is not just one pass they care to make. I saw some vehicles (including trucks!) pass three or four vehicles at once. Sometimes the vehicle on my tail could not pass first because the car behind them darted out into the other lane to get the jump on the supposed slow pokes in front of them. The Slovak national sport may be hockey, but a close second has to be a game of vehicular chicken. Nearly everyone seems to be engaged in a nationwide competition to see how many vehicles they can pass before a head on collision nearly ensues.

The incredible thing is that I never witnessed an accident, though on multiple occasions the vehicle traveling in the opposite lane had to hit the brakes in order to avoid a head-on collision with an offending daredevil driver. Only once did I witness an oncoming driver making gestures of exasperation at a daring culprit who had just threatened a number of innocent lives. I believe that the oncoming drivers tacitly admit that they would be doing the exact same thing, perhaps they just did a few minutes before.

Then there were the four lane highways. These brought out the bi-polarity of the Slovak driving soul. In the slow lane, other drivers seemed to allow me to proceed at my own pace without much tailgating, even if you were going a bit below the posted speed limit. Conversely, life in the fast lane was more akin to the last few laps of a Formula One competition. If I happened to be overtaking someone slower (a rare occurrence in my experience, but it did happen) I had better be going at least 150 kph (kilometers per hour) even if the posted limit was 110 kph. Sometimes even this amount of speed was not good enough. Once I got around those in the slow lane, the drivers behind me would sometimes show a miraculous amount of impatience. They would already be trying to pass me in the slow lane going a good 50 kph over the posted limit. In a word, this was an intense experience.

Street in the historic mining city of Banska Stiavnica

This street in the historic mining city of Banska Stiavnica may be empty now but most assuredly there is a speeding driver on the way

Defensive Driving – Taking Offense
At first, I tried to drive extremely defensive. This only exacerbated the issue. It meant I was going to get passed even more than the usual. The slower I went, the more likely those behind me would try to pass just before the crest of a hill, or on the cusp of a curve. I have not smoked a cigarette in years and I found myself craving not just one, but a whole carton after a couple of hours driving in Slovakia. Later I checked the accident statistics for Slovakia compared to other European Union nations. Oddly, they were quite average. Well statistics are one thing, but my experience quite another.

As for city driving, this was also troublesome. Banska Bystrica does not have heavy traffic, but in certain areas, especially close to the old town it was close quarters. There were plenty of one way streets to ensure many a heart attack inducing incident if I got confused. The closest I came to an accident was when a lady in front of me decided to stop in the middle of the road after blowing past an empty parking spot she coveted. She was already a good ways past it and I was stopped halfway in front of it. This did not stop her from putting her vehicle into reverse and attempting to back in. I could not reverse due to the fact that there was a line behind me. A fender bender was only avoided after I frantically pounded the horn. My shouts and wild gesticulations were ignored as she went on searching for another spot or another possible accident.

In Slovakia - the safer and slower option is always the bus

In Slovakia – the safer and slower option is always the bus

Risk Analysis – The Chance Of Life
Back at the hotel I mentioned my driving experiences to the kind hearted man in his forties, Stefan, who was watching the lodging for his parents that day. He looked at me quizzically. He stated that the roads had been much improved over the past decade and continued to get better, as though the road condition might have somehow had to do with reckless driving in the past. I told him the roads were not the problem, but instead the acceptance of extreme risk. I did not want to insult him or his country, but I let loose that driving in Slovakia was an insanely, nerve wracking experience.  He looked unoffended and impassive. For a moment I wondered what he was like behind the wheel, than it dawned on me that I already knew.

2 thoughts on “Driving Me Insane – Slovakia & Road Angst: Look Out!

  1. Hey there, I’m a Slovak myself but I live in the US. I recently returned from a trip in Slovakia where I drove my family around including two little kids. I experienced the same kid of astonishment and frustration you did as I am not used to Slovak tailgating and passing anymore. In my opinion, if you try to find the reason behind such driving ( not just Slovak but also Polish, Czech and Hungarian), it is because we did not have highways until recently and as you experienced, many roads are windy and go through the mountains…so if you tried to get to High Tatras from say, Kosice, it would take you 2.5 hrs in normal traffic. But if you are stuck behind a slow truck or a slow vehicle, it will take you an hour longer. So you take the first chance of passing slower cars on a straight road …and you get as close as possible at the tail of the car you’re passing to do it fast. People got used to this kind of driving and to my surprise, they continue to practice it even on the highway which drove me crazy.

    • I definitely think you are right when it comes to the lack of experience with highways. I do not think there is anything more frightening then being on a heavily trafficked, curvy two lane highway in Slovakia. It is terrifying. You mentioned Hungarians. I noticed they have a habit of gunning it in neighborhoods, even if they only have 50 yards of open road. I was just back in eastern Slovakia a couple of months ago, for the first time since I wrote that post. Oddly I got used to the craziness. The only cure was to be uber aggressive as well. Safe travels and please feel free to share with friends and family:)

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