Monday, December 22, 2008

Highways of Death

It's that time of year again. Temperatures drop, shops are decorated, and the nation's attention will once again be drawn to one thing: highway fatalities. The holiday season last year was marred by a spike in accidents and deaths on Albania's roads. This happens in the U.S. too and I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same in many other countries. Holiday travel, alcohol, and bad weather can combine to create a darker Christmas tradition anywhere in the world. Here in Albania, as with everything else, things are a little different.

The first factor is the state of the roads. No, they're not in such disrepair that they are deadly. On the contrary, the rise in fatalities becomes most noticeable just after a new section of road opens up. The routine goes something like this:
  1. The PM announces a road improvement project.

  2. Five years later the roadwork is completed.

  3. Just prior to the next election, the PM (usually not the one who initiated the project) holds a ribbon cutting ceremony to show his/her governments efforts toward development.

  4. Within three months, the new section of road is proclaimed a "Highway of Death" by the media as the carnage begins.

  5. The next stretch of road opens up and the cycle repeats.
The first iteration of this cycle happened on the Tirana-Durres "autostrade." It took nearly 7 years to build the first seven kilometers from the city limits almost to the airport turn-off. As a superhighway, it lacked a few finishing touches. Limited access, for one. The road was not fenced and drivers entered where they liked. Pedestrians had unlimited crossing points. U-turns were possible just about anywhere. In reality, it wasn't a super-highway, just a 4-lane country road. But you could drive real fast!

Progress came and eventually the road became truly divided. Concrete barriers solved the U-turn problem, but created difficulty for pedestrians and their livestock. With no overpasses or underpasses, the only way to get across was a 25-meter dash with a wall-vaulting halfway across. Easy if you're a 20-year-old lavazh worker. Not so easy if you're a 60-year-old villager with a cow.

While the government answered this need by slowly building pedestrian overpass bridges, the local made the wall-vault portion easier by piling rocks at each side of the barrier in the fast lanes! Each time I headed for the airport, I quivered in anticipation of what kind of lunacy I would witness. The road never failed to exceed my expectations. Once it was four farmers trying valiantly to boost a reluctant heifer over the Jersey barriers while angry drives whizzed by on each side, honking like crazy. Another time it was an old lady coaxing her cow over the pedestrian overpass whose spindly steel superstructure trembled with each bovine step. The cow didn't seem keen on the idea despite the determined motivational lecture being administered with a stick by the old crone in black!

This stretch of road was the first I ever heard termed "Highway of Death" in the newspaper. It seems the villagers who crossed it had grown used to crossing the old, potholed excuse for a highway which the autostrade replaced. Since the new road went in, they had not recalibrated their time/speed/distance estimators to deal with the increased traffic speed. The result was predictable. Dead pedestrians, wrecked cars, lurid headlines, and calls for action. This attention soon faded away, either because the press got bored or Darwin's laws culled out those who couldn't survive in this new traffic environment.

Fortunately for the press, the autostrade from Durres to Rrogozhine was inaugurated and soon won the coveted "H.O.D." title. This heavily-travelled two-lane road passes through more rural, isolated country than the Tirana-Durres road and soon racked up fatalilties among villagers who had only ever had to dodge cars travelling 1/8 of the new speed limit. Again the calls for traffic calming measures came and again the government did ... nothing. The locals then took things into their hands.

Americans call them speed bumps. The Brits call them "sleeping policmen." Albanians call them "dead policemen", presumably to avoid confusion with actual sleeping policemen. Regardless what you call them, these little humps of tarmac are very effective at slowing traffic. These villagers, obviously not professional highway engineers, took them to a new level. They made them about 40cm tall, from concrete, in the middle of the night. Come the morning rush hour and the police found themselves responding to accidents on the H.O.D. not involving squished pedestrians, but a $60,000 Mercedes with it's undercarrige destroyed by a 80mph collision with a miniature bunker laid across the road.

Time passed and the "slow pedestrian" gene got weeded out of the Kavaja gene pool. Accidents rates fell, and a new H.O.D. opened, one which reigns to this day. It's the stretch from Fushe Kruje to Lezhe. This one was perfectly situated to claim the title with arrow straight stretches of two-lane blacktop cutting across farmland dotted with villages and farms. The road had been started in the late 1990's, but was delayed for many reasons. This delay gave the locals a chance to get used to using the road sections as they were completed. A few entrepreneurs even managed to build their business directly on the side of the road before traffic started flowing. Today, the road is busy, crowded, and narrow in places where junkyards, gas stations, or pork butchers' kiosks stand inches from the traffic lanes.

But it's not just unwary villagers who die on these roads. Just a few days ago this road was the site of a two-car head-on collision that left two people dead. The press claimed the H.O.D. was the cause while the police blamed the pile-up on excessive speed, bad weather, and lack of lighting. Anyone who drives this road knows the real reason. It's the unique relationship between Albanians, their cars, and history.

It's only been 17 years since private citizens were allowed to drive and own cars here. Given the liberty to do so, Albanians went car crazy. Driving became a status symbol which they adopted with the same passion they have for football and the same lack of attention they pay to rules in general. Driver training was minimal or non-existent. In 1993, ten bucks got you a valid license regardless of driving skill. The stage was set. Lot's of inexperienced drivers, a passionate love for cars, construction of better (read: faster) roads, and more cars on the road. Stir these ingredients into the macho Mediterranean culture and, voila, chaos.

They think they are great drivers. They yield to no one. They drive drunk, or distracted, or both. They die in large numbers. Tragically, it's usually after a celebration when the odds catch up with them. Even more tragic, they take people with them. Families, pedestrians, children. I'm keeping my fingers crossed this year and hoping to see signs of improvement over previous years.

And I'm staying off the roads.

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