Sunday, 9 January 2011

Driving Speeds in Poland

A couple of speed limits changed with the arrival of the New Year, but the descriptions of the changes vary. I hope this is right. From, the border road signs should now look as below.

I can't imagine that any country is completely without people who exceed the speed limit, but people new to driving in Poland may be surprised at the extent to which speed limits are ignored and (from asking questions time to time) actually unknown.

This sign indicates that the road is in a built up area. The 50 km/h speed limit is almost completely ignored. I nearly caused a punch-up in a bar once when, having returned to Warsaw after having seen 50km/h marked at the border, I asked if it was correct. In fact, the Minister in charge of roads completely denounced 50 km/h when MPs voted it into law, saying it was unenforceable, which, combined with discussions about allowing cities to have 50km/h zones, left most people thinking 60 was still the limit. Additionally, in many places, roads with a theoretical 50km/h limit have signs to slow traffic down to 50 km/h eg at pedestrian crossings.

This confusion is made greater by the existence of some very good free-flowing roads in completely urban areas. There are three lane, dual carriageway roads where the actual standard speed is probably around 90km/h, restricted only by distance between traffic lights. Even driving at 60 will leave you overtaken by everything. The speed of traffic flow on smaller roads depends on the surrounding conditions. This may be 60 in heavily built up areas with significant curves in the road. On the other hand, short stretches of countryside in theoretical built-up areas, will again see speeds of 90 plus. Similar speeds are normal on routes that go through towns and villages where the building layout doesn't give the impression of a heavily built-up area. To balance this, traffic calming measures such as pedestrian crossing islands in the centre of the road are being introduced.

There are, of course signs allowing both faster (for free flow) and slower (for safety) speeds in particular places. This particular sign is seen around housing estates and shopping centres and denotes a pedestrian area where cars are allowed. The 20km/h legal limit is also usually dictated by practical conditions, but is ignored on better roads on larger housing estates.

Roads that are not in built-up areas, and are neither expressways nor motorways, have a speed limit of 90, but this increases to 100km/h for dual carriageways with two lanes. (I don't which limit is for dual carriageway single lane roads.) Actual speeds vary according to conditions, but 120km/h seems about standard. Although from here on, lorries and coaches have a lower legal limit, their speed often seems to depend in practice on vehicle capabilities - coaches often match cars, whilst the problem for lorries is more of acceleration than cruising speed. On the other hand, there is a far larger proportion of vehicles - cars as well as lorries - travelling below the speed limit.

I have travelled relatively little on expressways, but get the impression that they are treated the same as non-built-up areas of road. The difference, if any, being the easier driving conditions with slip roads and better crossing points, allowing faster free movement. I suspect the rough similarity of speed limits - previously only 10 km/h higher here, did not give the motorist any reason to drive differently. The limit remains 100 km/h for single carriageway roads, but has increased to 120 km/h for dual-carriageways. It remains to be seen whether the general 120km/h psychological accepted speed level for all roads is now increased here to 140 or 150 km/h. (A further 10 km/h tolerance level is given to the police, which may make this more likely.)

As with expressways, I have travelled little on motorways - there are none where I live. The surprising feature, when I have used them, has been the low level of traffic and general adherence not only to the speed limit, but, by many drivers, the 120 km/h psychological limit. It is only on these roads that I can expect to be amongst the fastest whilst travelling at the permitted speed, with relatively few exceptional speedsters. The legal limit has now increased to 140 km/h so this may also change driver psychology. There is criticism of this - 'the highest speed limit in Europe', but my main concern is the potential knock-on effect on speed psychology on other roads. However, I may well be wrong to fear this and few of us yet have the opportunity to test motorway driving. From what I have seen, the new limit may not dramatically make motorways themselves more dangerous and I have driven without problems across Germany doing 220/230 km/h (with Mercedes's flashing past me) on their no-limit autobahn areas. I am aware that I might be being over-optimistic, however.

I find the signs varying the speed limits confusing and I strongly suspect that they are not consistently used. I know that the speed sign in a larger white square indicates a consistent stretch of road with the speed limit shown, which applies until another sign shows differently. I think, but am not sure that the speed sign with the red circle to the edges of the sign is used for a short-term reduction of speed for safety reasons eg at pedestrian crossings and difficult road junctions. However, the theoretical end of zone sign is often missing and it is up to the driver to decide when to speed up - not so obvious for multiple hazards. Beware, that in some places the speed camera is situated immediately behind the lower speed limit sign. You need to be doing that speed when you arrive at it, not slowing down when you get there.

Remember, also, that the end of restrictions sign brings you back to the maximum allowed for that type of road. It is easy, when driving along a wide dual carriageway, to forget you haven't left the built-up area and are supposed to be only doing 50 km/h. The police car may be just over the hill waiting for you. Most people regularly travel the same route and know where the police are likely to be: they will slow down just in time, and you may not notice that you are suddenly one of the only drivers going that speed. Indeed, regular long-distance travellers will automatically slow down at the top of the hill on routes they are not familiar with, just in case. (I don't know if radar detectors are legal; I have seen them advertised at the side of the road; but the only person I knew who used one came back with it from England.)

Poland has the highest rate of road deaths in Europe. Be careful, stay calm, keep a good eye on what other people are doing, and, as Dave Allen, the Irish comedian, used to say "May your God go with you".


Michael Dembinski said...

Steve - an extremely useful and well researched article. Unfortunately, none of the road sign pics come up.

(I get this: Forbidden
You don't have permission to access /images/stories/znaki_informacyjne/d_39.png on this server.

Pan Steeva said...

I think the graphics will now appear. I couldn't use the signs from the original website, but I've maintained my link to it, as a useful reference point (in Polish). Wikipedia has a 'Comparison of European traffic signs', but there are few English language descriptions.

Paddy said...

Interesting. The photos now work for me. I always though the blue sign for 20kmh zones featured a ski-ing house.

Incidentally I don't think the 140kmh on expressways in Poland is too high asthey really are in excellent condition and perfectly up to it. But as anyone who has driven at that speed knows, when you come off slip-roads you tend to drive much faster as your reactions have adjusted. But judging by the dangerous risk-taking most Polish drivers indulge in, that's the least of our worries!

TEFL SecretAgent said...

Yes, I agree very well researched post. Although I loathe driving in Poland...