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An accidental tourist

THE WINTER of 2004-2005 broke a fifty-year record for snowfall in Slovakia. As a skier, I could not have asked for better conditions. For a glorious week and a half in February, I toured the mountains of Slovakia and Austria in search of snow and big mountain descents

THE WINTER of 2004-2005 broke a fifty-year record for snowfall in Slovakia. As a skier, I could not have asked for better conditions. For a glorious week and a half in February, I toured the mountains of Slovakia and Austria in search of snow and big mountain descents. Having driven extensively in mountainous areas in the winter, I thought I had seen it all, but driving above the 700-meter mark in Slovakia proved more challenging than I ever anticipated.

Slovakia's numerous microclimates make winter weather completely unpredictable and I found myself constantly struggling to install or remove my car's snow chains. The problem with snow chains is that they compel you to drive under 50 kilometres per hour and must be removed as soon as the road becomes clean of snow. Although I had requested a winterized vehicle, the rental car (a Volkswagen Golf automatic) came with neither snow tires nor a towrope - two essentials for driving in snow country.

On 16 February, I planned to drive from Hriňová, Slovakia, to Hauser Kaibling, in Austria's Dachstein Tauern ski region. Having driven the road from my in-laws' farm in Bystré-Vrátka, I knew all the dangerous sections by heart and carefully slowed the vehicle before every turn. Just below the Capuchin monastery the car hit a small patch of windblown snow. Ordinarily, I would have allowed the car to run over the snow before braking, but the sight of a lorry coming around a hairpin turn compelled me to brake slightly. With snow tires, I might not have hit it, but without them, I lost control of the rear wheels almost as soon as I tapped the brakes. The car fishtailed left, and grazed the lorry. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Insurance statistics indicate that 77 percent of all accidents occur less than 25 kilometers from a person's residence; in this case, my accident occurred less than two kilometers from my home away from home in Slovakia. My wife and I got out of the vehicle and exchanged information with the lorry driver.

My wife suggested that we drive to my brother-in-law's office to re-group and figure out what needed to be done next. Janko took us to a local garage to have the car inspected and make sure it was safe to drive. We called Hertz and informed them of the accident and the condition of the car. They instructed us to get a police report and then drive the car to Vienna Airport for inspection.

Janko then drove us to Hriňová's police station. As I crossed that threshold, it dawned on me that Europe does not have habeas corpus laws.

The officer greeted us and escorted us into his office and began taking down the information about our accident. At the conclusion of the interview, he asked me to pay a fine of €51.40. In Slovakia, those at fault in an accident must pay a fine to the police. Ninety percent of this money goes to the Slovak treasury and ten percent goes to the police force. The officer then issued us a release form to cross from Slovakia back into Austria. Without the release, the Slovak Border Police will not allow a damaged rental car to leave the country.

Before we left, my wife asked the officer for a copy of the police report. The officer told us that he could only release the report to the insurance company. We later learned from the Slovak Interior Ministry website that police are required to give any foreigner involved in an accident in Slovakia a copy of an accident report. It took Hertz two months to receive a copy of that report from the Hriňová police.

But this delay pales in comparison to the hassles I experienced with Hertz Austria. They did not get a damage estimate for the vehicle from a local Volkswagen dealership until May 4, 2005, despite numerous inquiries made by Hertz's International Office in Oklahoma. Many of Hertz's international operations are franchises, and as such, they are not always responsive to the higher headquarters.

When the bill finally arrived, I nearly fainted: Porsche Wien-Simmering charged Hertz €3,452.89 in parts and service charges for my little fender bender. I carefully scrutinized the bill. Everything looked okay. Car repairs were just much more in Austria than in America or Slovakia.

I then compiled all documents related to the accident and mailed them to Visa Enhancement Services. One of the major benefits of my Platinum Visa card is collision insurance for car rentals. To qualify for it, one must charge the car on the Visa card and decline collision/loss/damage insurance. If you get into an accident, Hertz charges the damage to your vehicle to the credit card and then you file a claim with Visa to get reimbursed (Hertz covers third party damages and liability).

Naturally, there is some fine print. One must file an initial claim within twenty days of an accident, and submit all required paperwork within a year of the accident. The rental contract cannot exceed 31 days outside of the United States (15 days within the US) and common European luxury cars such as BMWs, Mercedes-Benzs are excluded. Finally, any losses due to intentional acts or illegal activity, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or speeding, are not covered.

That last provision created a hiccup for me in the claims process. Since Slovakia does not have a no-fault system for accident reporting and I admitted fault, the Hriňová police officer needed to charge me with a crime or infraction. In this case, he charged me with not yielding in a timely manner to an oncoming car on a narrow road (Slovak law 315/1996, paragraph 17). He then issued me the lowest fine for an "unspecified traffic infraction" according to the guidelines of the Slovak law 379/1990, paragraph 22, section 1, letter K.

Since Visa Enhancement Services did not have a translator who could read Slovak, my claims officer presented me with a choice: either I could wait for Visa to hire a contractor to do the translation, or translate the police report myself. I chose to translate the report myself with the help of my Slovak wife. The examiner then requested an explanation of the Slovak laws referenced in the report. I called my wife and in about ten minutes, she found the laws on the Web and translated them. Visa accepted the translations and wrote me a check for €3,477.63 five days later (the full claim plus credit card charges for currency conversion). The Visa insurance claims process went very smoothly thanks to my wife's skills as a translator and paralegal.

I later discovered that one can get to nearly any ski center in Slovakia by public bus, train, or combination thereof. If time is of the essence, cabs (or car services) are relatively affordable. Fun Taxi of Bratislava charges €167.06 for a cab ride from Vienna to Detva (250 km). Given the exorbitant costs of hiring a car plus the hassles and risks of renting, I plan to leave the driving to someone else for my next trip.

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