There are lousy drivers everywhere in the world, but what seems to separate Kosovo traffic from other places is an outright criminal disregard for road safety rules, turning a reasonably manageable driving gamble into a lethal exercise.
Sometime ago while waiting at my dentist’s office, I caught an episode of Judge Judy playing on a TV bolted on the opposite wall. Judge Judy is an American reality show with arbitration cases, presided by a retired judge. “Do you know what it means to drive,” the Judge asked one of the defendants who had caused a minor accident bumping into another car. The defendant mumbles something. The Judge interrupts in her usual brash style: “Let me tell you what it means. You have to have eyes all over. You have to see with the back of your head, with your neck, you have to see sideways. You have to turn your ears into eyes and eyes into ears. In other words you have to see everything in a 360 degree panorama.” The defendant nods and walks away. Guilty.
This scene has come back to me repeatedly as I try to navigate Kosovo traffic over the past few days. Tensed at all times behind the wheel, I feverishly scan the space around my car and try to anticipate the reflexes and sudden whims of all the individuals with whom I share the road. The defensive mode of driving is extreme and I seem to never be able to count on the basic notion of self-interest of other drivers to stay unharmed as if they were indestructible and I am the only one vulnerable on the road.
Though I have navigated the most congested streets of big cities, from Washington D.C. and New York City to Brussels, Amsterdam, and Athens, driving in Kosovo turns me into a nervous wreck. Suddenly I seem to lack the versatility to improvise and adapt when traffic rules are suspended. How to react, for example, when a fellow driver runs the red light—as I did witness about three or four drivers do just in the past few days? In one case the driver violating the signal missed a pedestrian woman with a child on the crosswalk by probably less than a meter.
Watching the scene I recoiled at the wheel. A real scene that cannot be reasonably squared with the supposition that a person who gambles with the lives of others in traffic is someone with a fully functioning brain. Hard to imagine that such a person is not an escapee from a mental asylum, who hijacked a car and turned it into a weapon with wheels aiming randomly at people. But judging by repeated and frequent violations of all manners one can witness on any given day, it doesn’t make sense to think of these drivers as unhinged fugitives. Instead, one resorts to thinking that these drivers must be experts at discounting life-threatening risks, and/or vehicle operators with a sixth sense who defy a rational-based understanding of clear and present danger.
There are lousy drivers everywhere and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young people in the United States and many European countries. Driving is more or less a sort of gamble with life. We rely on others as much as we rely on ourselves to stay safe. We believe that other people are rational who don’t want to injure or kill someone while driving. We rely on rules and signals and believe that others do the same. What seems to separate Kosovo traffic these days from other places, however, is an outright criminal disregard for the road safety rules, which turns a reasonably manageable driving gamble into a lethal exercise. It’s the kind of exercise where a sixteen-year-old gets behind the wheel, drives madly down the road and kills two innocent bystanders on an ordinary morning—as it happened recently. No one is safe on the road whether pedestrian or driver.
Appalling display of impatience and schizophrenic speed are two idiosyncratic characteristics that embody these road killers. They drive as induced in a state of psychosis and undefinable anger—anger with the red light, with stop signs, with children crossing the street, with the car in front, with the speed limit, with their own place in the world, with any kind of rule that constrains their bully and infinite lunacy. Nothing stops them. Not the prospect of injuring or killing an innocent person and then rotting in prison, nor the horror of accidents and the ubiquitous death everywhere and everyday. They have turned Kosovo the most dangerous place to be on the road and, according to Kosovo police, this summer as one of the deadliest on record for traffic deaths.
The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.
Featured image: By AgronBeqiri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons