Interview: Why jaywalking is illegal in Poland
Stefan Tompson is a political commentator and documentary film-maker. In 2014, he started a campaign to make jaywalking legal in Poland, an act currently penalised with a hefty 150PLN fine (circa. £30) which reached debate at parliament before being shot down. I am happy to be able to talk to him about the relationship between drivers and pedestrians.
Well, to begin with, what was the moment that you started fighting the status quo on laws for pedestrians?
Hmm, well, I started fighting the law when I was almost fined for crossing a street that was closed down and guarded by a row of policemen on a red pedestrian light on the 11th of November 2014. It ended with the police officer giving me a warning, which was absurd given the street was literally shut with barriers stopping cars from accessing it. It had always irritated me to see people standing at lights, sometimes for several minutes at a time, with no traffic in sight. However, receiving a lecture after crossing a closed street was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Was it difficult to argue your way out of that situation?
So the main argument of the supporters of the law, an argument presented among other people by the police spokesperson I had the pleasure of debating, was "dura lex, sed lex".
This sort of blind attachment to the letter of the law is one of many absurdities and unfortunate heritages of communist times that has deresponsibilized individuals. This law effectively claims an individual is not capable of reasonably deciding when to cross and when not to cross the street.
Additionally, pedestrians can cross the street of their own accord as long as they are over 100m from the nearest crossing. So you can cross 100m away but 99m away you can't? That makes no sense. Either individuals are always responsible or they are never responsible. You can't have it both ways.
I also pointed out that a number of streets don't have lights and yet people cross the street and live. That's broadly the case I made.
What do you think motivated the police to try to fine you in those circumstances? Are they so firm in the principles of the law?
The police and the so called "straż miejska" stick to it for a variety of reasons:
- High revenue from the process of fining jaywalking
- Power trips; these are badly paid individuals in a society permeated by wealth inequality and badly damaged by communist practices and remnants of post communism in the police forces. This is a badly affected sector as it was crucial to running and enforcing communism.
- A community that doesn't believe in the responsibility of the individual. People broadly stick to the law and I was surprised by pushback from the public. The topic drew a surprising amount of attention. There were thousands of comments on the multiple articles that appeared. For such a niche topic it was really surprising how much press attention it actually got.
Are there any markers that show where the 100m point is? And if there isn't, do you think the government would support a motion to put these in?
Man! Ahaha! No, there aren't and the government definitely wouldn't support that. There's a lack of available funds and it's a low priority, if not irrelevant issue.
What about local authorities? Surely if they are unwilling to openly show where the boundaries lie, they are potentially allowing entrapment?
Hmm. I think the authorities appreciate the status quo due to the revenue jaywalking generates. There definitely is no will to change things.
You clearly got some support during your campaign. What groups of people did you find most willing to support you?
Young people who had travelled or lived abroad and realised that you can actually cross the street. Seriously.
It has been 5 years since your initial supposed illegal crossing. Do you think Poland would be more willing to change these laws now? Or have things remained static since the initial campaign?
Yes, five years on, I think people are increasingly contemptuous of the law and jaywalk far more frequently. The political will doesn't seem to be there though. But I think it's on the right track, if enough people embrace it - like in France where there is a fine for jaywalking, of roughly 4 euros, but it's never applied. You can't fine everyone. It ends up being a numbers game. Norms shift and laws usually (though not necessarily appropriately) follow suit.
I remember that last time I was in Poland I noticed that on some crossings vehicles could go through a crossing while pedestrians were given a green light. Do you think a rethink of pedestrian-driver relations could make safer crossings?
Damn. YES. Ahahaha. That was actually the crux of my argument. Thanks for reminding me: I'd forgotten the main absurdity of the case. So there are left and right turns for cars when pedestrians have a green light. My argument in the media went as follows:
- You trust a driver with a several ton car to not crash into a pedestrian. The driver is potentially endangering a fellow citizen and not himself and the law fully trusts him with this.
- You don't trust the pedestrian to not walk under the car: the pedestrian is only endangering himself. The worst case scenario is that he gets run over.
And what was the authorities counter to this point? Do they openly admit they are happy to keep this risk for pedestrians?
Dura lex, sed lex. Communism and post-communism often don't leave much leeway.
Do you think the government would be open to such changes if the EU proposed European standards for pedestrian traffic?
Hmm, interesting question. I think not necessarily, because of an entrenched lack of pragmatism in Poland and because they believe it reduces fatalities on the roads (which incidentally are far higher than EU average). I think the main problems is the high road fatalities in Poland: I suspect they will argue that you can't have a one-model-fits-all solution to a "Polish" problem. But this is just speculation on my part.
Do you think a lack of standards across Europe can lead to confusion for pedestrians, especially while there is freedom of movement?
For sure. You see it with tourists in Poland and vice versa. Foreigners never stand at lights in PL and you occasionally see law abiding Poles in the West or at least you used to, many years ago. It was even a joke amongst new migrants to the UK back in the early 2000s: How do you recognise a fellow Pole? He's the only one standing at a red pedestrian light.
It sounds like traffic laws in Poland are enshrined in dogma rather than a reasoned defence. What do you think needs to be done to replace road traditions with a rational and data-centric approach?
Ok, so the big problem I see in driving culture in Poland is this: it's the first generation of drivers. Most people didn't have a car well into the nineties. So this leads to this aggressive, macho driving culture which was seen as status and power. To put it plainly: there is a bad driving culture in Poland. First you need to wait a generation to actually change drivers' mentalities: wit time it will become more civilised and courteous.
Do you think it would be possible for a strong mayoral candidate to bring in a zero-deaths policy like the one Sadiq Khan has brought in for London?
To put into perspective accidents in Poland: in 2017, we had 32 706 accidents, 2 831 people died and 39 466 people were injured. That's the scope of the accidents in Poland, which places it as the 4th worst country in EU for road accidents, behind Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. Changing that with regulations seems like a quasi-impossible task: it requires better infrastructure and a drastically better driving culture. So even if regulation were put in place, and zero tolerance and high fines, it may push the country in the right direction by pricing people out of "affording" traffic misdemeanours and it may shift the driving culture somewhat, but it also requires massive investments in infrastructure.
By the way, the countries listed with worst driving offences are all post-communist states, which is an interesting pattern. It reflects the accuracy of my theory about the driving culture of the so called "Homo Sovieticus" individuals who have driven no longer than one generation.
If we get commercial, highly safe self-driving vehicles on the roads, do you think Poles will be interested in this new technology or do they just love driving too much?
It"s an interesting question and I'm no expert on the topic: I haven't seen the data to make any authoritative statements on the matter but I will hazard a guess: intuitively I'd say there is a degree of macho attachment to driving. Price, like for many other matters in post-communist countries, will probably be the biggest issue for a long time still.
How do you finish an interview?
That's another good question!
See more of Stefan's work on his YouTube channel.
published: Thu Feb 28 2019