Traveling Across A Trampoline – Avoiding Death While Driving In Hungary

The main difference between driving in Hungary and the United States is quite simple. In the United States driving is for the most part pleasurable. In Hungary, driving is an intense, adrenaline fueled rush. This has everything to do with the drivers and little to do with the roads. After recently driving over five hundred kilometers on Hungarian roads I would say that they are about average in quality, though some would dispute this rating.

Close to perfect an M Highway in western Hungary

Close to perfect an M Highway in western Hungary (Credit: Pan Peter12)

Riding The Roads Of Hungary – Smooth, Serviceable & Nightmarish
The Motorway (M) (Autópálya) roads, which are equivalent to the interstate system of American roads are excellent in condition. This largely has to do with the fact that they are controlled access highways. Anyone driving on a Hungarian M road has to pay a toll in the form of purchasing a vignette. A ten day vignette costs 2,975 forints ($10.80 at the current exchange rate). The excellent quality of these roads speaks volumes about where that money goes, to their upkeep. Imagine smooth ribbons of pavement crisscrossing the country, this is the essence of the M roads. An added benefit to the driver of an automobile is that trucks must maintain a set speed and stay in the right hand lane at all times unless they are passing another truck. Additionally, trucks are not allowed on M roads on Sundays. Because of this, Sunday is an opportune time to travel by car.

One level down from the M roads are the primary main roads, known as E (Elsődrendő főút) roads. These see much more local traffic and vary in quality. They are major arterial roads that take a large majority of the traffic, primarily because there are no fees to use them. The E roads skirt the edges of major cities in many places. These roads are maintained relatively well. With the amount of traffic they carry, it is imperative that the E roads be in at least average condition. The other roads are the secondary main roads (Másodrendű főút)  and the local roads (Helyi út). These roads vary in quality from serviceable to nightmarish with potholes and busted pavement abounding. Driving on a local road can be like traveling across a trampoline at 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) due to the endless bounces and bumps. Everything from tractors to mopeds, BMWs and bicycles can be found using these roads. While the variety and quality of Hungarian roads was interesting, the drivers were another story. Some of them were flat out frightening.

The road less traveled - a rural highway in western Hungary

The road less traveled – a rural highway in western Hungary (Credit: Szabolcs Locsmandi)

A Road Turned Into A Speedway – Risking & Cheating Death
In the Culture Shock Hungary Guide, author Zsuzanna Ardo has this to say about driving habits in her homeland: “Hungarian drivers may come across as not particularly sensitive souls, often with a strikingly short fuse. The style of driving tends to be macho. Demonstrating courtesy towards fellow drivers and other road users is not very common; shouting, cursing and using threatening body language is.” While I did not experience much of the latter, the former was on display throughout. Macho driving is putting it kindly. Many Hungarian drivers seem to think that the main point of driving is to cheat death at every turn.

On more occasions than I could count, drivers attempted to pass the car in front of them no matter the risk. Numerous times cars zoomed up behind me, to the point where I feared getting rear ended while going 60 miles per hour. Then if they could not pass, their modus operandi was to stay right on my back bumper. The entire time they would be swerving to the left impatiently waiting for a split second opportunity to pass. It was not a question of if, but when. The only place they seemed to obey the posted speed limits was in villages, but as soon as they got beyond the village limits they accelerated, transforming a rural section of road into a speedway. Only on the M roads could I relax and enjoy the drive, but even this could be problematic.

Cautious and courageous - a bicyclist in a Hungarian village

Cautious and courageous – a bicyclist in a Hungarian village (Credit: Utracks)

Head On Hungarians – Passing On The Problem
When getting over to pass the numerous trucks that could not leave the right lane I had to check and double check to make sure that someone was not going 100 miles per hour (160 kph) in the fast lane. If I tried to ease over into the passing lane while this was happening, there was a risk of being sideswiped or rear ended. The worst experience occurred with frightening rapidity. This involved someone attempting to pass on a two lane highway with very little margin for error. Time and again I witnessed this fatalistic phenomenon. Head on collisions were narrowly avoided because the oncoming car hit the brakes just in time, in particular one death defying incident will likely stay with me forever.

After crossing the Danube River on a bridge in south central Hungary, I saw a Volkswagen sedan pulling a trailer filled with goods. The driver decided to pass a slower moving car. The problem was they only had about five seconds to attempt this pass. This put them squarely into the same lane as me, coming in the opposite direction. Suffice to say they had badly miscalculated and did not have enough time. A head on collision was only avoided because I had enough room on the right shoulder to get over and the car they were passing did the same on the left shoulder. The Volkswagen squeezed between us. The driver who had put everyone’s life in danger never flinched, proceeding on as if nothing had happened. The entire incident was over in a matter of seconds, but shocked me to the point that I expected it to happen again at any moment. The risk involved in such driving is breathtaking. Something in the Hungarian mentality drives these people, quite literally to put everyone’s lives on the line to save a few seconds of travel time.

Tamed By Two Wheels – The Bicyclists of Hungary
With skill and quite a bit of luck I managed to survive ten days of driving in Hungary. It provided me with a lesson in extremely defensive driving. It also gave me a healthy respect for the many bicyclists in the country. In some areas, bicycles outnumber cars by ten to one, but these are places that rarely have dedicated bicycle lanes. If driving is dangerous in Hungary, being on a bicycle takes risk to a whole new level. The strange thing is that the many Hungarian bicyclists I observed seem to have the exact opposite mentality of the Hungarian driver. They slowly and steadily pedal toward their destination. Perhaps they are saving their raw energy for the day when they can chance fate and get behind the wheel of a car. Then again, maybe they are being super cautious as the next car approaches.


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