Polish minibus disaster surprises nobody

Eighteen people killed in a minibus—several million wondering if they will be next. Anyone who has been on one of these rattling deathtraps has been expecting this. There are tens of thousands of them on Poland’s roads, most of them operated by tiny companies and almost all of them alarmingly substandard.

The thousands of minibus operators fill a yawning gap in the nation’s public transport network. For millions of people living in rural areas they are often the only way of getting anywhere. The formerly state-run national bus company, Przedsiębiorstwo Komunikacji Samochodowej (PKS), was in a woeful state when it was broken up and partly privatised in 1992. More recently its monopoly was broken when new laws allowed competition. The minibus companies that sprang up like autumn mushrooms to fill the market are a fine example of the benefits and pitfalls of the free market.

I’m sure there is a stack of perfectly adequate regulation governing this industry, but I’m equally sure that they are completely unenforceable—there are just too many operators. Companies appear and disappear overnight, but the buses and drivers remain the same. Go to any of the multitude of muddy abandoned lots in Polish towns and cities that serve as ersatz bus stations for these crowds of minibuses and you’ll see layer upon layer of ambitious timetables issued by Franek’s Bus Company, Janek’s Bus Company and Auntie Halina’s Bus Company pasted on top of each other.

I have no idea if yesterday’s tragedy was anybody’s fault, but it is clear that the bus was ridiculously overcrowded—and this is certainly the most common problem. If a private operator can cram 47 paying passengers onto a minibus with 20 seats, he will. If you’ve been standing by the side of the road in the freezing rain for half-an-hour, you’ll put the risk at the back of your mind and try and be the 48th. I avoid minibuses during peak travel hours as assiduously as I avoid volunteering as a Chilean miner, but sometimes they are the only option if you don’t have a car—an alternative that I do not regard as significantly safer on Poland’s roads. It’s hair-raising stuff. It is, for example, common practice for the driver to collect money and hand out tickets as he is pulling away from the stop. Four of five people stand clinging onto seats, a couple of feet from the windscreen, as the driver steers with one hand and fiddles with change and the ticket machine with the other. I’ve even seen a driver changing the paper roll in the ticket machine as he is pelting down the highway at 60. Certain catastrophe balancing on a coin edge.

What astonishes me is that these potential tragedies are obvious long before they happen. Two local examples: in Krakow last year there was a series of accidents in the crowded Old Town involving horse-drawn carriages. It was sheer luck that nobody was killed or severely injured. Nobody who has spent time in the Rynek in mid-Summer was even mildly surprised.

Double melex: what could possibly go wrong?

In the past couple of years the number of those electric buggies, sometimes called golf carts (or melex), whisking tourists around the sights have exploded. These things are usually driven by students and often stuffed with ‘excitable’ tourists on pub crawls urging extra speed and louder music.  Melex are not exactly fast, but, fully loaded, and careening down a narrow street they are quite capable of mashing a passerby to a pulp against a wall. It’s just a matter of time, but not until it happens will anything be done.

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22 thoughts on “Polish minibus disaster surprises nobody

  1. Jamie – I fear you missed the point. This was not a bus. It was a van – a crew-cab van with three seats in the front and a bench of three seats behind. The rest of the van was windowless cargo space, into which 12 people were crammed.

    The van was owned by two brothers living in Drzewica. Another brother was also in the van, and many local friends and relatives on their way to Grójec to pick fruit. There should not have been 18 people in the van (which from the pics looks reasonably new). There should have been six, all wearing seatbelts. The back of the van is for freight, not for passengers.

    And the van should not have been overtaking another vehicle in fog so thick that the lights of an oncoming TIR were not visible to the driver. The driver was an idiot – his stupidity, incompetence and impatience murdered 17 people.

    Having said that, Poland does have a problem with unregulated mini-bus operators. See the speed with with those small Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-based buses career down the Lublin road – puts the fear of God into me.

  2. scatts says:

    And the van should not have been overtaking another vehicle in fog so thick that the lights of an oncoming TIR were not visible to the driver. The driver was an idiot – his stupidity, incompetence and impatience murdered 17 people.

    That’s the whole point for me. I could imagine myself being stupid enough to load all my mates into the fruit-picking van but NEVER to compound that error by driving dangerously.

    We know from UK experience on the M25 how dangerous fog can be. The drivers there also drive like morons at 90 mph in thick fog and then cause multiple pile-ups but I can’t remember there ever being this high a death toll even though far more vehicles were involved.

    Thick fog was a factor in the deaths of nine people and injuries to 51 others in a massive 200-vehicle crash on the M1 north of Luton, Beds, in March 1972.

    Eleven people died in fog on the M25 in December 1984.

    To attempt to overtake a TIR in a van with zero acceleration (heavy with 18 people) in bright daylight on a dry road would be idiotic enough but in thick fog? You have to be a special kind of moron to attempt that.

    Funny in a way, we drove along roads in that very neighbourhood just a couple of weeks back and I had to resort to a flashing lights, honking and gesturing rant at an idiot who overtook me on a completely blind stretch of road, nearly hit the car that suddenly appeared and shoved in between me and the person in front. He’s the kind of lunatic that would attempt the fog trick. Someone should check the driving schools in that region.

    I feel sorry for the truck driver, although chances are he’s made similar moves himself in the past and got away with them.

  3. island1 says:

    I did realise it wasn’t a minibus in the sense of a vehicle that made money by transporting people, but it was a minibus in the sense of being a van with seats in it. I confess, I blurred the distinction somewhat in order to make a point.

  4. Gabriela says:

    Here in Peru there is a very dangerous transport, vey popular in populous areas: the mototaxi.
    Here you have an image:
    http://hablavas4.blogspot.com/2010/04/mototaxi-mezcla-de-moto-con-taxi-aunque.html

  5. Grze$ko says:

    I’ve read a very interesting article on the subject in online “Polityka”. The readers comments there are in fact better that the article itself – I recommend.
    Big mistake island1: “I’m sure there is a stack of perfectly adequate regulation governing this industry, ” I am quite sure there’s hardly anything adequate about this “industry”.
    Where do all those people get their bus licenses?
    How often are the vehicles checked for safety and by whom. I’ve seen them in Krakow, belching smoke and crookedly hobbling off down the road. I would not dare use them PERIOD.
    Those “industries” are filling the gap left after the fall of the previous system. The government would have to cough up a few millions to create an operational public transport system and finds it easier and more convenient to close one eye and let “entrepreneurs” fill the gap.
    I am against mindless litigation, but it would be very interesting to follow the path from the accident through permits, safety check all the way down to the policies allowing home grown drivers to transport people in rusty, 20 year old “busses’.
    I must say I feel safer in a rickshaw in Deyang, that I would on a “bus” in the centre of Europe.

  6. Grze$ko says:

    On a different subject, but maybe related a touch through information, legislation and the F%^&*&G “Melex”es.
    They seem to move through the traffic with no number plates driven by pimply teenagers who, I’ve been told, do not need to have a driver’s license as they are not driving anything at all. Those vehicles just do not exist.
    If you are in Krakow, have a good read of the signs at the entries to the old city and main square.
    You can drive there if:
    Blah, blah, blah…
    “Vehicles with electric motors.”

    Now, that’s WITH electric motors, not powered by them.
    So can I drive in in a Hybrid car?
    Can I drive in in a Hummer WITH electric motor in my sunroof?
    I guess this is just an example of how “regulated” things are. From the sign, to 18 people dead, the pattern is there.

  7. All I will say is that the headline is entirely appropriate. 18 dead is just another statistic here.

  8. Pistefka says:

    There are most definitely some very common, and very stupid attitudes amongst drivers in Poland, Hungary and Romania (speaking from personal experience.) I am not saying that all drivers in these countries share these attitudes, but they seem to be more common, if anything, among commercial drivers.

    The symptoms are all too familiar, and include:
    not wearing seatbelts or bothering about providing them for others.
    speeding whenever possible
    ignoring the unbroken double lines on roads, and overtaking whenever and whatever the conditions
    packing far too many passengers into vans
    generally being w@nkers

    The causes are more difficult to pin down, but I have often guessed that they might be related to an attitude that laws and safety regulations are not made for the benefit of the populace, and should thus be broken whenever possible, as an act of rebellion against the oppressive state. Yes, even after it became democratic.
    Perhaps these drivers also see such rules an insult to their competence – after all they are all “good drivers” so don’t have to abide by these rules. Or those rules were made for rubbish old cars – their cars are new (almost) and shiny and German, so shouldn’t be bound by the same rules as Ladas or Polski Fiats or Dacias.
    Besides, they might argue the Germans don’t have speed limits on the Autobahn (hmmm, I can’t see any difference between the Autobahn and the 2 lane potholed mess that links most central European towns.)
    Or perhaps they don’t need any excuses at all. Its all about Number One now isn’t it? Thats what capitalism is all about, isn’t it? We can all be naughty boys now, and drive our cars like idiots, wink wink nudge nudge ha ha yes, yes very good.

  9. Waldemar says:

    18 people, like against a wall at arround 160 km/h in a red can.

    Well, i myself have seen a guy on a scooter drunk so much, so that he was driving on the whole width of road with unstable but high speed and direction, so that it was almost impossible to take him over and get finally to the f** place! But I made it! :-D When I have passed him, I just saw in the mirror as he slows down, makes an eight and finally falls (safely, I hope) on the road (middle of it).

    Today almost nobody talks about it anymore, even though it was just 2 days ago.

  10. Stefan says:

    Some facts about my only country.
    1. We are no ‘green island’. We are a poor country of a great number of poor people.
    2. Before WWII seasonal workers were just an inch higher in social hierarchy to beggars. Now they make up a significant share in the labour market. Thousands of poor people will do ANYTHING to survive and support their families.
    3. Polish drivers, no matter if lorry drivers, minibus drivers or whatever drivers, are reckless idiots.Bravado is part of their style. Otherwise they would have no topics for their conversations. Overtaking on a congested road is a norm. 150 km/h is a norm. If any authorities try to be strict, Internet fora are full of idiots’ indignation.
    4. On the other hand, Polish lorry drivers, if they want to earn their living have to cheat on tachographs and on their time of rest. Otherwise they wouldn’t earn enough for themselves and their families to survive.
    5. Polish economists are happy that Poland has cheap workforce since cheap labour attracts foreign capital.

    I do recommend Adam Smith’s ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’. The current situation in Poland is a classic example of the rules described 250 years ago. Maybe we need such tragedies to realise what’s going on.

  11. jaekq says:

    @Stefan

    I don’t think this is going to change anything! For example few months back Lech died and 98 ppl along with him, because our country can’t afford planes, can’t afford fuel etc. Pople dying every day, thats what I like to call LIFE! I know it’s harsh, but we born to die at some point…

    It doesn’t matter where, poland, uk, romania, croatia, us – there are #$%!@ idiots out there, you can drive well, slowly and cautiously, but the guy ahed doesn’t and guess what – just because his stupidity some are going to die…that’s how it works and there is nothing that can be done about it…I mean there is, but it’s usually not good for business – as one of the bumper stickers says “shit happens” and it does happen all the time.

    And don’t take me wrong here, I am not pesymist I just don’t believe in man kind anymore ;p there are certain individuals that can make a difference, but most of us is just here to fulfill ‘their’ plan…

  12. Stefan says:

    @jaekq

    However right you might be the statistics show it clearly that our roads are more dangerous than those in Germany, UK, not to mention Scandinavia. Persuasion seems not to get through to them. Coercive measures may work but the point is that we already have so many regulations that nobody’s able to comprehend them all. If there are too many rules people tend to piss on them, all the more if you’re fighting for survival (I mean living).

    It isn’t true that we cannot do anything about the situation. Even if we cannot affect others we can always take OUR feet off gas pedals. We can call our friends boasting of getting from Bialystok (I’m from Bialystok, hence the example) to Warsaw within 1.5 hrs bloody fools instead of smiling and nodding with admiration. That’s for the beginning.

    On a broader arena we should always criticise the guys who express publicly their satisfaction with the fact that Poles are poor and work for nuts. I’m no communist nor even socialist, but the argument of keeping people in poverty because this is good for our economy (attracting foreign investments) does not appeal to me. I don’t give a damn for the best economy if the people are deprived of elementary dignity.

  13. guest says:

    exactly

    What we see here is a huge hypocrisy. Politicians want GDP growth and a low unemployment rate. That’s their holy grail. Nothing else matters.

    And of course cheap and fast transport and cheap workers are are the pillars of it.

    And that’s why they will probably never stop this kind of transport because 20 people in one bus is of course much cheaper (and better for the economy) than 20 people in 3 busses….and the faster they reach their fields the more apples they can pick and the more productive they are at the end of the day….

    It is a vicious circle and Poland is not the only country. Such hypocrisy can be found in many countries and different areas… for example one can say, 18 Poles died on the street and 18 Brits died in Afghanistan.

  14. siudol says:

    Stefan makes a valid point about that guy bragging about driving from Bialystok to Warsaw in an hour and an half. Driving at breakneck speed (on the Polish roads for Pete’s sake!), breaking some sort of stupid record (endangering the lives of countless people in the process) is still considered as some kind of badge of honour and proof of manhood by a lot of Polish males. I have driven in a lot of countries, and the attitudes towards reckless driving varied in every one of them. Where I currently live, if you brag about driving fast (and therefore dangerously), you run a risk of being told you`re an idiot or at least getting a stern look of disapproval. You certainly won’t get a pat on the back as it, by the sounds of things, is still the case in Poland. The sooner those morons get a slap in the face, figuratively speaking (or perhaps not) than a pat on the back, the sooner something may start changing over there.

    Does anyone know, by the way, what proportion of reckless driving accidents is caused by men as opposed to women? I wonder if it`s purely a male thing.

  15. polkaontheisland says:

    Sorry for the 18 killed – but it’s only driving attention because there were 18 at once. Normally there are several crashes with 1-2 people on board. Nobody notices because it takes a big number to be a media news.

    My opinion is that ever since we, the young and brave, went abroad for our big adventure, driving in Poland slowed down considerably. And the SF conventions aren’t as much fun anymore.

  16. Steve says:

    Its easy to criticise, but part of all this is a very different story. A group of local people got together in the only transport they have, going to tough, low paid jobs to get some money for their families. “They shouldn’t have done it” means they shouldn’t have gone to work, just hung around unemployed and penniless. Have a little heart.

  17. siudol says:

    I don’t think anyone is saying they shouldn’t have done it. The point is the driver shouldn’t have been overtaking in heavy fog with 17 people on board. They would’ve got to their destination had the driver not been such a cocky jackass.

  18. scatts says:

    Pity these vans don’t have black boxes, then we might find out who was in the cockpit insisting that the driver overtakes the lorry despite the poor visibility.

  19. Tony says:

    “Pity these vans don’t have black boxes, then we might find out who was in the cockpit insisting that the driver overtakes the lorry despite the poor visibility.”

    Best. Comment. Ever!

  20. Kukuł says:

    I know these, they’re called Tok Tok in Egypt and Tuk Tuk in Thailand (you know, some things get lost in translation). I don’t think they are unsafe vehicles, but I do think that driving them is a profession of choice for registered lunatics.

  21. bob says:

    Think they will ever learn??

    Minibus caught carrying three times more passengers than allowed
    19.10.2010 14:01

    http://www.thenews.pl/national/artykul141841_minibus-caught-carrying-three-times-more-passengers-than-allowed.html

    A minibus carrying 28 people, including 26 schoolchildren, has been stopped by police in the south-eastern Polish village of Jarocin.

    The bus was stopped after police were alerted by a concerned resident of the village, and was found to be carrying three times the amount of passengers allowed for such a vehicle.

    “It was discerned that the vehicle, which is allowed to carry nine passengers, was carrying three times more,” spokeswoman for the Subcarpathian regional police, Marta Tabasz told journalists. The children were being transported back from classes to homes in the area.

    The driver of the minibus has been handed two fines of 100 zloty (25 euro) each: for overburdening the vehicle with excess passengers as well as not obliging passengers to wear seatbelts.

    Last week a minivan carrying 18 people crashed head-on with a lorry near Nowe Miasto nad Pilica, central Poland. Everyone travelling in the minivan died. Police have since stepped up controls of overloaded passenger vehicles. (jb)

  22. island1 says:

    But, as I implied in my post, what choice is there?

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