Lithuania does not have the best possible reputation for traffic safety. Out of all European countries, it registers the highest number of fatal traffic accidents per capita per year. Other European nations even fear Lithuanian drivers on their roads as the drivers are said to export the problem along with them. Unlike the drivers, the roads in Lithuania are claimed to be able to `compete with the best in Western European` and Lada cars have largely been replaced by a more modern fleet of Volkswagens and Audis. So, what is still going wrong?
My day starts early as I need to join Rita (30, photo) who will take me 150 km up north-west, to the city of Siauliai. She herself is going to Riga for a job interview. We also collect Aurimas (27) whom she will deposit a little further north from where I need to go. It is only during our discussions that I find out that Rita`s father was killed in a traffic accident and so was one of her classmates in secondary school. I was not planning to get as close to the subject as that, but it does illustrate how serious and common the problem is.
`My father died in a car crash`
Drink and Drive
Aurimas is convinced that drink-and-drive is the biggest of all problems associated with road safety. It is still very common in Lithuania to consume a few pints and still drive home and the majority of all accidents involves alcohol in some way or another. Apart from drink-and-drive, Aurimas blames the lack of responsibility of young drivers. They use the road as a playground and, more than once, this ends up in tragedy. Aurimas estimates that overtaking on two-lane roads is the most dangerous situation, but the fact that people walk along motorways is not very helpful to safety either. Some people even sell fruit or flowers along the main roads, as traffic flashes by.
Since I was planning to write about this topic already well before I got to Lithuania, I have spent the last few days observing the problem through my own eyes as well. To summarise it all: it is a hell of a mess. Some people lack the most basic driving skills. It`s a good thing the roads are (not yet) as busy as Western European ones, because in that case, the problem would be even much worse. There is no watching or seeing involved in the process, just doing. Too fast, too slow, sticking on the left-hand side, parking on the emergency strip of the highway, ignoring traffic lights, accelerating with smoking tyres - you name it, and it`s common practice here. It wouldn`t all be such a big problem if it were done with skills. Paris, Istanbul and Rome are also known to be hectic places traffic-wise, but most drivers there at least have control over their own vehicle. Most of the time...
Infrastructure and equipment
For the interregional network, road surfaces are indeed quite good. Speed limits are clearly exhibited and do not differ substantially from Western European standards. Exits are clearly marked and should not lead to major confusion. However, some motorways have exits on the left hand side, forcing turning cars to cross the opposite carriageway. It is also allowed to use these left hand exits to make a U-turn.
Local roads and city streets can be straight nightmares. Holes, bumps, slippery surfaces and lack of marking lines lead the dance. At night, cities seem to change into Formula One circuits. Speed limits are no longer respected, and it seems as if many cars simply try to make as much noise as they can.
German car brands are the highest in number. At a glance, they are on average about 10-15 years old and they don`t usually look nor sound safe. One thing I find quite interesting is the lack of top-class cars and no-good-for-nothing cars. Most car types are modest middle class models, which is completely different from for example Romania. It rather looks like driving styles give status, rather than the type of car driven.
In order to bring down the number of road accidents, local authorities are raising fines for speeding (which both Aurimas and Rita refer to as `over-speeding`) and drink-and-drive. TV and radio ads have been introduced to increase awareness. However, unlike the ones in Ireland, the ones in Lithuania do not involve blood, injury and misery. They rather aim to artistically convey the idea that it is better to be sober when you drive, to drive a bit slower and to wear a seatbelt. Which is still something about 50% of drivers refuse or forget to do.
So when driving a car in Lithuania, act not like the Lithuanians do. Buckle up, because you may need your seatbelt here more than in any other EU-country.
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