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Culture Shock: Honking, dangerous drivers fill Bratislava roadways

As a first generation Canadian of Slovak heritage, I have lived in Slovakia for the past two years. During this time, I have noticed that the driving etiquette in this country is a bit different than the laid-back approach of my hometown in London, Ontario. Simply put, some Slovak drivers - or at least those who infest the streets of Bratislava - are intolerant and aggressive to a dangerous extreme. Since I started driving here, I've been honked at, cut off and passed dangerously more times than I can remember.
Driving in Bratislava is a nerve-wracking experience that cannot easily be summarised. Here's an example of what to expect: A few months ago, I was driving down Vajnorská Street when a driver with a Bratislava license plate flashed past me and then cut me off sharply before pulling up at an intersection. The driver then proceeded to honk at me, I suppose for observing the speed limit and not taking foolish liberties with other people's safety.


No one's listening, or watching for that matter.
photo: Courtesy Andrej Reiser

As a first generation Canadian of Slovak heritage, I have lived in Slovakia for the past two years. During this time, I have noticed that the driving etiquette in this country is a bit different than the laid-back approach of my hometown in London, Ontario. Simply put, some Slovak drivers - or at least those who infest the streets of Bratislava - are intolerant and aggressive to a dangerous extreme. Since I started driving here, I've been honked at, cut off and passed dangerously more times than I can remember.

Driving in Bratislava is a nerve-wracking experience that cannot easily be summarised. Here's an example of what to expect: A few months ago, I was driving down Vajnorská Street when a driver with a Bratislava license plate flashed past me and then cut me off sharply before pulling up at an intersection. The driver then proceeded to honk at me, I suppose for observing the speed limit and not taking foolish liberties with other people's safety.

I was just relieved to see that the front end of my Favorit had not been shaved off, and would have forgotten the incident, but the driver accelerated away from the intersection and then came to a quick stop, waiting for me to pass him.

The car - a luxurious sedan with tinted windows - pulled away from the curb and began to follow me, the guy behind the wheel flashing his high beams and honking his horn. After about a minute of this game, the driver changed lanes and passed me with a shake of his fist, leaving me shaken and furious.

But drivers are not the only victims of idiotic behaviour on the roads of the capital - pedestrians are also at risk, and are far more vulnerable.

I witnessed a rather alarming incident last year in the Bratislava suburb of Petržalka, where a young, physically disabled boy was attempting to cross the street at a cross-walk. After the boy had painstakingly limped his way past the impatient hedge of cars that had finally stopped for him, one of the drivers actually had the gall to honk at him!

Generally, pedestrians are well advised never to set foot on the street - even at a cross-walk, even when they have the right of way - without making sure that the road is clear. Although the government passed a law last year making it mandatory for cars to stop at cross-walks when pedestrians are waiting to cross, the law is little more than a joke, with even police cars ignoring the new edict.

Nor does it do any good to stand on your rights after having been run down by a speeding BMW driven by a young, muscle-headed idiot. I have seen such vehicles travelling at over 100 kilometres an hour even on residential streets criss-crossed old ladies, weiner dogs and kids.

What is behind this mayhem? Doubtless a feeling of invincibility and impunity on the part of some drivers, who use their vehicles as an expression of their anti-social feelings and general disrespect for the law.

But the other side of this problem is the virtual absence of law enforcement. Police vehicles are a rarity on the roads, with the country's poorly paid officers preferring to set up roadside checks than chase down bad guys.

These checks may occasionally net a BMW jerk or two, but far more frequently stop regular folk going about regular business. If you get stopped, here are a few things you may want to remember:

1) If you don't speak Slovak- good luck! Few police officers speak English, and attempts at communication may be a frustrating experience.

2) If you are stopped for a minor violation, you will probably be obliged to pay a fine. Always ask the officer why you have been stopped. If you have a green-card with your long-term address in Slovakia, you are not required to pay the fine on the spot. Ask for a ticket and pay the fine at a later date.

3) Always get a receipt from the police officer if you decide to pay the fine on the spot. It may happen that the officer will ask you to pay 300 crowns without a receipt. If this happens, decline the offer (unless you don't mind paying a bribe), insist upon receiving an official receipt, and pay the fine in total. If you would like to file a complaint concerning the officer, ask him for his name and his police identification number which should be visible on one of his breast pockets.

Expats and Slovaks alike should remember to stay on their toes when driving or walking in Bratislava. The police do their best to control hooligans and to punish dangerous conduct, but they are too few and their resources too small to make much of an impact on the obnoxious behaviour of a few bad eggs. Far better to take a taxi, and let the driver deal with the hassles!

Tom Nicholson
contributed to this story

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