Driving in Hungary

Today six Hungarian citizens lost their lives in highway accidents. Three in Austria and three in Hungary. A charter bus with forty-two young soccer fans was on its way home from Milan when around four o’clock in the morning the bus, apparently quite new and in good shape, went off the road and hit a guard rail. Three people are dead, and two were seriously injured: one broke his back and is paralyzed, and the other’s arm had to be amputated. Twenty-one others are injured but not seriously. Apparently, the driver turned his head to talk to his "co-pilot".

In Hungary, in a chain reaction, four vehicles ran into each other. The first vehicle was a van. Behind it a truck carrying paraffin. Then came an ordinary sedan and at the end a smaller truck carrying bananas. The truck ran into the the van, the sedan into the truck (which went up in flames), and the truck carrying vegetables ran into the sedan (that also caught on fire). Three people are dead–two in the sedan and the driver of the truck with the bananas.

One can say, yes, such things happen. The problem is that in Hungary they happen far too often. To give you some idea about the extent of the problem, according to the Hungarian Statistical Office (Országos Statisztikai Hivatal) in the first six months of 2007 595 people died on Hungary’s highways. This is a 15% year over year increase. There were 9,500 traffic accidents in which 13,000 people were injured, including the 595 dead. The total number of accidents is 2% higher than a year ago. (This is not a worrisome statistic as the number of cars continues to increase. But fender benders are one thing, fatal accidents another entirely.) Over 90% of the time the problem lies with the driver. Some accidents are caused by drunken drivers. Their number increased by 11%. Other accidents are right-of-way violations.

According to the police, most of the accidents are caused by speeding. Many of the most serious accidents are single-car affairs. Drivers lose control and smash into walls, guard rails, houses, ditches, name it. Driving too fast always raises the risk of an accident, but the problem is exacerbated when the driver is inexperienced and can’t judge when he can speed and when he can’t.  Although Hungary has more and more well-engineered four-lane highways, there are still secondary roads going through villages with pretty sharp curves. If the driver takes one of these curves too fast, he may be unable to keep the car on the road. From the description of Hungarian car accidents I suspect that most of the serious accidents are of this kind.

Many Hungarian drivers are inexperienced, the proud owners of their first car. Moreover, the newer cars are much more powerful than Hungarians who previously owned cars are accustomed to. The older Soviet, Romanian, or East German cars (especially the infamous Trabant) didn’t have a heck of a lot of horsepower. Now, people sit in a German, Japanese, or American car and feel that they have to show the world what their cars can do.

Add to all this the Hungarians’ penchant for ignoring rules and regulations. If the use of the safety belts is compulsory, it’s a sure thing that very few will use them. While in the United States 80% of the people buckle up, in Hungary maybe 20%. And then you hear that X or Y "flew out of his car." Years ago, before the 1994 elections, Gyula Horn had a terrible car accident (he broke his neck) when it turned out that he didn’t have his seat belt on. About a year ago, a member of parliament and mayor of Pécs, had an accident on his trip home. The driver died a few weeks later, the politician (who didn’t wear a seat belt) has been in a coma ever since.

Prime Minister Gyurcsány, as if he didn’t have enough trouble, decided to do something about this. Stricter law enforcement, higher fines, more police on the road, and more traffipaxes. There were traffipaxes before, but the problem was and still is that the owner of the car could get out of paying a fine by claiming that he was not the driver of the vehicle at the time of the speeding violation. The government is planning to change the law: the owner of the car is responsible for any speeding violations. If Mr. Kovács lent his car to his cousin, Mr. Kovács is still liable. He can fight it out with his cousin.

This leads to a sidebar about auto insurance. I admit that I don’t know a thing about car insurance practices in Hungary. In the United States most insurance companies require the policyholder to stipulate who will be driving the car and who will thus be covered by the insurance policy. It is not unimportant whether a forty-year-old woman is the sole driver of the car or whether her nineteen-year-old son also has access to the car. And just watch the premium skyrocket in the latter case!

In any case, some organization defending the rights of drivers already announced that the proposed legislation is simply alien to Hungarian jurisprudence. The ever skeptical Hungarian commentators already predict that nothing will change.