A van carrying 18 agricultural workers had ploughed head-on into the front of an oncoming truck in fog on the wrong side of the road in Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą. The six-seater van was carrying 18 people; 14 men and four women. Six on two rows of seats, a further 12 (!) seated on crates and planks in the back. It seems the driver of the van overtook a slower moving vehicle in the fog to collide head-on with the truck. Unrestrained by seatbelts, 16 of the people in the van died on the spot; the remaining two died in hospital.
This is the worst single accident on Poland's roads since 1994. While this is a huge and concentrated loss of life, it is but part of a larger sorrowful picture. Per million citizens, the number of people dying in road accidents in Poland is three times as many as in the UK.
This is not just a story about crazy Polish drivers. It is also about the poverty and hopelessness in Poland's countryside that seems scarcely touched by the civilisational leaps that urban Poland has been making.
Poland's cities are seen the fastest rates of growth, earnings have shot up; unemployment is lower in urban Poland than in urban Britain. But the countryside has been left behind in the nation's dash to catch up with western Europe (see this post from May). The people in the van were off to pick apples. Because the money was (for them) good - 10 złotys (a little over £2!) an hour, there was no shortage of people willing to squeeze into the van travel to the orchards around Grójec. The victims came from around the same village, Drzewica, near Opoczno (unemployment rate in the district: 14.1%. Warsaw's is 3.4%).
Little details emerge the paint a typical picture of rural Poland. The driver and two of his brothers killed in the crash were from a family of eight. A surviving brother said he too, would have gone but he lost some fingers in an accident and so could not pick fruit; he has to get by on long-term disability benefit.
In the UK, official attitudes to health and safety are exaggerated the other way (to the detriment of civil liberties), but given the accident statistics, the British way does save lives. The fatality rate on British building sites for example is three times lower than in Poland (5 deaths per 100,000 workers compared to 15). And just look at all those Polish drivers with their mobile phones clamped to one ear as they navigate their car with one hand.
There is a particularly blase attitude to road safety in Poland. The Economist picks up on this. Look at the photo at the top of the Economist story; a pregnant woman with her two small children is crossing the road at a zebra crossing. The driver of red Nissan Micra (PO 141AF) is not stopping to let them cross safely. NAME AND SHAME! This photo made me boil with anger. This is chamstwo - boorishness writ large. Selfishness, impatience, a total lack of regard for other road users. Driving in England I cherish the courtesy, common sense and patience of the vast majority of British road users, which is translated directly into lower accident rates.
If we think things are bad in Poland, spare a thought for neighbouring Ukraine. This very day, a bus was hit by a train at a level crossing there killing 44 people.
But was England always such a safe country for driving? I'm minded of John Betjeman's Meditation on the A30, written 50 years ago;
"...that lorry won't let me get past,Or from his poem Executive (1973):
this Mini is blocking my way...
...Who dares to come hooting at me?
I only give way to a Jag.
"You're barmy or plastered, I'll pass you, you bastard
-I will overtake you. I will!"
As he clenches his pipe, his moment is ripe
And the corner's accepting its kill."
"...I've a scarlet Aston Martin - and does she go? She flies!While the marques are still with us (though no longer British-owned), the behaviour has changed; drink-driving and speeding are no longer socially acceptable. I just hope for the sake of the tens of thousands destined to die on Poland's roads in forthcoming years that the shift in attitudes will happen quickly. (Incidentally, do any contemporary Polish poets vent their ire at road users' bad behaviour?)
Pedestrians and dogs and cats, we mark them down for slaughter."
Yesterday's accident at Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą should not be forgotten. It should remain in the national consciousness as testimony to what happens when basic rules of road safety are so blithely ignored. The media and government should educate. The three days of mourning in Mazowieckie and Łódzkie provinces should be a time when seated behind your steering wheel to contemplate your own sins as a driver.