Hungarians and traffic laws

Hungarian drivers are notorious: apparently you put your life on the line when you try to cross a street. Just lately there were several fatal accidents at pedestrian crossings. One was really terrible: a grandmother was pushing her grandchild in a stroller, and a car that refused to stop ran them down. Both died.

Then there are the horrific pictures in the newspapers. The bodies of the vehicles are twisted beyond recognition, and the cars sometimes land upside down. Often these are single-car accidents; the driver simply lost control. He was going at such a speed that he was unable to take a curve and smashed against a telephone poll, a fence, or a house. People, including children, fly out of these wrecks because they refuse to buckle up. Children who are not supposed to ride in the front seat do. Politicians don’t exactly set a good example. I can think of two horrible “political” accidents. One, years ago, when Gyula Horn, shortly before the 1994 elections was driven somewhere in his Volvo and the car was involved in an accident. He broke his neck. He wasn’t buckled in. Two years ago, an important MSZP politician, László Toller, the very successful mayor of Pécs, was being driven home from Budapest when the driver lost control of the car. Toller has been in coma ever since, the driver died two weeks later. Neither of them was wearing a seat belt. The resulting statistics are horrifying: fatal accidents in Hungary are twice as high as the average of the European Union.

Gyurcsány’s government decided to tackle this problem as well. Something had be done, they said. They named a former undersecretary of the ministry of justice, Ferenc Kondorosi, to be in charge of changing certain laws and making sure that there would be vigorous enforcement. This was just another irritant for a society that has a rather peculiar view of rules and regulations. One of the most abused provisions of the then-existing traffic laws was that if the camera and radar (Traffipax system) recorded a car’s license plate and its excessive speed, the owner of the car was not liable for the traffic violation if he announced that it wasn’t he who drove the car. He lent it to somebody else. At this point the Hungarian police were at a loss: they had to give up the idea of fining the person. If that had happened a few hundred times, it would have been bearable but, believe it or not, eventually there were one million such fines hanging in the air. These generous Hungarian drivers: they just lend their cars to anybody, friend, relative, God knows whom else. (I don’t know about the rest of Europe, but in North America owners of cars jealously guard their vehicles. Moreover, if there is an accident and it is not the driver listed on the insurance policy at the wheel, the insurance company might not pay.) In order to remedy this situation, the Hungarian government decided to change the law: the owner of the vehicle is responsible. Period. In my opinion that is a very sensible way of looking at things. If the owner was foolish enough to lend his car to somebody else and if that person was caught speeding he can settle the business with his friend. The police has nothing to do with their private arrangement. In the face of the new law Hungarian drivers had to devise another way to speed with impunity: if there’s no license plate, there’s no record of speeding. Suddenly license plates fall off. Lost! Again, not just a few hundred but thousands. So another hole to plug.

Let me tell you a couple of stories I heard about Hungarians complaining about the police who fined them for traffic violations. The first story is from here. It was years ago; in the infancy of the internet there was an English-language list on Hungary. Among the contributors was a Hungarian Ph.D. candidate somewhere in Ohio. One day he wrote an irate post. He was fined for being parked in a spot with an expired parking meter. He arrived as the policeman was writing out the ticket. He tried to explain to him that his landlady’s clock was slow and that was why he was late, but the heartless policeman didn’t care and kept on writing. Our Hungarian simply couldn’t understand that clock or no clock he had violated the traffic laws. We tried to explain that the policeman’s action was reasonable. To no avail.

My other story is very recent. Yesterday in György Bolgár’s program one of the topics was zero tolerance. One guy who considered himself very experienced in the affairs of the world said that he was dead against the Hungarian version of zero tolerance because, and now listen carefully, in New York zero tolerance means something different from in Hungary. In New York the police found all those who committed the smallest violation while in Hungary only those get punished whom the police happen to catch! Bolgár tried to explain to him that of course in New York the police fined or arrested only people whom they happened to catch, but he didn’t get very far with him on this score. Then our caller came up with an even more interesting interpretation of what our attitude toward the law is supposed to be. There are laws that are simply stupid. He gave an example. In a village the speed limit was 40 km, but he was travelling through the village in the dead of night. There was no one on the street, and yet this horrible policeman pulled him over and fined him because he was speeding. Outrageous. He didn’t endanger anyone’s life. Thus, in his view we are the sole interpreters of all rules and regulations. If we find something ridiculous or superfluous we can simply disregard it.

Too bad that I couldn’t give him a local example. There is a state highway nearby where the speed limit is 45 mph. The road is straight and there are very few houses. We all suspect that the speed limit was artificially set low to enrich the already affluent neighboring town’s coffers (the classic American speed trap, but usually a way for struggling towns to boost their revenues). So you hear my annoyance. And those who live here are super careful and often often flash their lights to warn oncoming drivers about the police car hiding in the bushes. However, if I were foolish enough to drive 60 miles per hour and were caught I would meekly pay (as in the early years a couple of my visitors did until I warned everybody about the speed trap).

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‘Tis sad but true – the absolutely TERRIBLE Hungarian drivers are one of the reasons I’m looking forward to leaving this country for good. I’ve taken to walking like the people here drive – with (feigned) total disregard for the cars and my own safety (without ever actually endangering myself, of course), delighting in yelling at drivers when they get too close to me and have to stop short, and occasionally slapping or kicking cars that fail to stop. I’ve also taken to hitting the side mirrors of cars that are parked illegally and therefore blocking my pedestrian path. If I had to stay here any longer, I might start keying cars to express my disgust. I can’t help but smile inside whenever I see a car that’s been parked illegally and therefore booted or hit and damaged by some other terrible driver.

John Hunyadi

Bill, I pretty much act the same way as you. If you are a pedestrian in Budapest you can either be very patient – for example, waiting a few seconds after the pedestrian lights go green just in case a car goes through the red lights – or throw caution to the wind and act just like the drivers. But no matter how careful you are, you still face an unacceptable level of risk (especially when it is green for both pedestrians and cars). I find it better to accept the danger and minimise the stress. Shouting when I can at dangerous drivers who are foolish enough to get within my range, helps me let off the steam caused by the other hundreds of dangerous drivers who remain out of reach. Of course, I’m careful enough not to offend the many bald-headed, pot-bellied, gold-bedecked gangster look-a-likes in their black Audis.

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