Warsaw, 3 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- When Polish authorities recently closed a bridge for repairs at Gora Kalwaria, some 40 kilometers south of Warsaw, they created a traffic jam that spread throughout virtually the whole country.
Because the bridge was on the main east-west route through Poland, heavy trucks bound for Moscow or Germany were rerouted through Warsaw, snarling traffic not only in the capital but for hundreds of kilometers in all directions as well.
The massive tie-up underlines the disastrous state of Poland's road and bridge network, which is foreseen as playing a crucial role in an eventual united Europe.
In all of Central and Eastern Europe, probably only Romania's roads are as bad as Poland's, and only Albania's are worse.
Poland's road network is not extensive -- the density of highways in Belgium is 80 times higher than in Poland -- and what there is is dangerous.
A 1995 Polish government report admitted openly that "national routes have become extremely hazardous for drivers." According to more recent figures, only 20 percent of Poland's roads are in satisfactory or good condition, while 80 percent are in unsatisfactory or bad condition.
Long-distance Polish truck driver Bernard Oltarzewski says it's so difficult to drive on Polish roads that he considers himself a stuntman rather than a driver.
Because Poland has only 257 kilometers of highways, local roads also serve as national and international transit routes. This means bicycles, horse-drawn farm carts, tractors, under-powered small Polish Fiats, fast Mercedes and enormous international trucks all share the same narrow roads. Drunk pedestrians are another hazard on country roads.
Drivers, frustrated by the slow pace, make up for delays every chance they get by pushing the pedal to the floor and slaloming in and out among the slower vehicles.
Austrian long-distance truck driver Manfred Krop makes the stressful drive through Poland twice a week.
"The traffic is very difficult. Drivers of small Polish Fiats are the worst. They drive for a long time in the left lane before they turn left. They drive at only 40 or 50 (kilometers per hour), they slow down the whole traffic."
The result of this dangerous mix of low-speed and high-speed traffic is Europe's highest road fatality rate. European Union figures show Poland has 11 fatal accidents for every 10,000 cars in use, dramatically more than Britain, for example, with just 1.5
Last year more than 7,000 people lost their lives on Polish roads, and another 80,000 were injured in traffic accidents.
Andrzej Urbanik, President of the government's Agency for Construction and Operation of Highways, says the fact that well over 100 people are losing their lives every week is the chief reason Polish roads have to be improved.
"Very often I compare it to this rail disaster two or three weeks ago in Germany, when nearly 100 people were dead. Then there was a national mourning day. Nearly every weekend, especially long weekends, in Poland this situation is the same. Of course politicians, public opinion, media are complaining and discussing the problem, but in fact nothing is done."
Some other Eastern European countries, while not having the same high fatality rate, have the same bad roads:
-- Romania has an extensive, but old transportation system with roads, railways and ports all needing substantial upgrading. The Romanian government has estimated the cost of reconstructing its infrastructure at 30,000 million over eight years.
-- Albania has ambitious plans to become part of a vital international east-west corridor linking the Adriatic to the Black Sea. But the reality is, as Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano complained in March, that in its first seven months in office, his government had not been able to asphalt "even 100 meters" of the country's disastrous roads.
-- Lithuania's main roads were constructed to high standards and were well maintained before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they have been allowed to deteriorate since then, and a back-log of re-paving and bridge repair needs is building up.
But there are some bright spots in the region:
-- Belarus, thanks to its Soviet past, has a 600-kilometer long four-lane highway that will serve it adequately for many years to come, and which enhances its value as an east-west corridor between Russia and Germany.
-- Latvia is in the forefront of the quest by the Baltic states to capitalize on their geographic position as a major gateway for Russian trade with the West. It not only has good land links, but also an oil pipeline and important ports. Some 45 percent of the country's investment goes to transport, storage and communications.
In all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, bad roads are the legacy of a Communist system that emphasized railroads over surface roads, in part because railroads were easier to control and were essential for the military.
Kazimierz Przelomski, principal banker for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in Poland, knows the problems well.
"With the introduction of market economy, the relations and the market, the railways have lost significantly their role, and road transport is playing a greater role. But Poland is not prepared for
that. You have to look at Poland from the perspective of having a huge gap which will need to be filled in. We have to catch up relatively quickly. Catching up now quickly with the rest of Europe, especially Western Europe, is a very difficult task."
The advent of the market economy has also brought a boom in car ownership, which tripled in the 15 years between 1980 and 1995. Last year Poland was Europe's fastest-growing car market, with Poles acquiring half a million new cars every year.
Traffic volume has risen 40 percent since the collapse of communism, with barely a kilometer of new roads being built to handle it. Traffic on Poland's Western border with Germany has soared 10-fold since 1989, an indication of Poland's increasing importance as an east-west transit route.
Because there is no distinction between local and international roads, even long-distance trucks are forced to drive through the center of towns and villages, just meters from the front doors of inhabitants' homes. Local residents have to put up with non-stop noise, pollution and vibration.
In one Polish town on the Berlin-Moscow highway, Sochaczew, 50 kilometers west of Warsaw, residents recently rebelled at the heavy traffic going through their quite farming hometown. For several days they held protests, blocking the roads and backing up traffic for 20 kilometers in both directions -- so far to no avail.
As an RFE/RL correspondent recently rode through Sochaczew, driver Jurek Zaporski expressed sympathy for the local residents.
"Look how we are driving, five kilometers per hour and look how we are polluting this air. These poor people are breathing it and they are poisoned by this pollution. I think we should have a freeway or highway or at least a bypass."
But for Poland, such improvements are still just on the drawing board.