On driving in Romania

Dear readers,

Please note the date of this post. The information was accurate (by my estimation of the situation) at the time of posting. I’m well aware that much of it is no longer true. Snapshot social commentary nearly always loses relevance and accuracy over time. Things change. That’s how the universe works. As such, I’d like to invite those of you who find this information to be offensively inaccurate by today’s standards to please stop leaving angry comments and sending me hate mail about how old, and therefore disgracefully incorrect, my commentary (by your estimation of the situation) may be.

Thank you.

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- My ride

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For the purposes of my research, I have acquired a 1990 Dacia 1310.  Romanian-made, with all the power and reliably that you would expect from a car manufactured in the second poorest country in Europe.  This car is the ultimate disposable car.  It’s built to die young.  But Romanians can’t afford to buy a new car every 18 months, so everyone that owns a Dacia is forced to become an accomplished mechanic.  The good news is that, unlike virtually all other modern cars, Dacias are simple and built so that any idiot with a screwdriver and no fear of grease can get to any part of the engine and fix it.  There’s no micro-processors, no motherboards and no digital anything.  It’s only equipped with the bare minimum of parts to make it go and that’s it.

Why did I buy this piece of shit?  For several reasons.  First and foremost, it looks exactly like the 20 million other Dacias in Romania.  These cars are cheap and low-profile, meaning that not even the most desperate thief would consider wasting their time breaking into the thing to steal my backpack, the combined contents of which are more valuable than four 1990 Dacia 1310s. Also, as I mentioned, any dough-head can fix it.  Not necessarily me mind you, but everyone else.  Moreover, the parts and labor will be a pittance.  Finally, being the most popular car in Romania will work in my favor when it comes time to sell it.  There won’t be any need to put an ad in the paper or list it on the Internet.  All I need to do is drive it around town with a ‘for sale’ sign in the window for a few hours and I’ll have plenty of offers. Sorted.

That said, this car needs more care and attention than a newborn baby.  I have to pop the hood and fiddle with the engine virtually every single day.  There’s always a thingy to clean, or a loose wire to wiggle or a smell to investigate. There’s no just starting it and zipping to the store real quick. Every trip requires anywhere from 10-20 minutes prep time.  To start, you have to give it a good once over before something as intense as starting it up can happen.  You begin by walking a slow, full circle around the thing to see what fell off during the night, or what is leaking from where, or which wheel deflated, and so forth. Once you’ve completed this loop, making all due repairs, then you can get in the car.  Particularly in the winter, there is a complex ritual for starting a Dacia.  If it’s especially cold or you haven’t started the car for a few days, your first step is not to put the key in the ignition, but, yes, pop the hood and lean way in there to finger-pump the primer.  Three pumps is recommended.  Then you get back in the car, pull the choke out all the way – that’s right, I said “choke” – stab the key into the ignition, make sure it’s in neutral, pump the gas pedal three times, say the Lord’s prayer and turn the key.

If you’re lucky the car will make a quiet, pathetic noise (“uuuuuhhhhggg”), at which point you stomp on the gas and it will roar to life.  You must keep you foot on the gas for 10 minutes or so for it to warm up enough so that it will keep running when you lift your foot off the gas, burning a litre of fuel in the process.  After that you’re off.  There are a dozen “unlucky” scenarios, but I’ll spare you those details.  Suffice to say that it’s just best to expect the unexpected.

- The (Lack of) Rules of the Road

I’ve done a decent amount of driving in Romania now and I’d like to impart some valuable lessons to you.Until recently, it wasn’t uncommon for drivers in Romania to acquire their license with a small bribe, a bottle of cognac and a wink, rather than training and testing.  Seeing their driving skills, I often wonder if anyone was trained. There isn’t a single driver in Romania who has any sense of their own mortality.  All driving is done at a frenetic, almost maniacal pace, even just to go to church.  Though the speed limit on the motorways is 100-110KPH, anyone going slower than 130 draws the ire of all but the horse-drawn carts and the older, ailing Dacias (like mine).  Even a few seconds behind a slower car is enough to drive a Romanian driver into a frothing rage.  With the horn blaring, high-beams flashing and middle finger at high salute, they will execute violent, high-risk passes on blind curves in bad weather, coming within inches of clipping other cars, horse carts and people (Romanians have this strange compulsion to walk in the road, even in the city where sidewalks are plentiful) in order to get past you and your sorry excuse for a car.  Essentially, the mentality of the Romanian driver is this:  If you’re not the fastest vehicle on the road, you’re not really trying. According to my own Lonely Planet, driving regulations are officially this:  “In Romania, there is a 0% blood-alcohol tolerance limit, seat belts are compulsory in the front and back seats (if fitted), and children under 12 are forbidden to sit in the front seat. Speed limits are indicated, but are usually 90km/h on major roads, 100-110km/h on motorways, and 50km/h inside cities. Having a standard first-aid kit is also compulsory. Honking unnecessarily is prohibited, and headlights need not be turned on in the daytime.”

Unofficially, there is no law.  I am the only person that I’ve ever seen wear a seat belt, and indeed, if you strap yourself in while in someone else’s car, the driver will be deeply offended, even if you pathetically try to explain that if you are involved in a car accident and you are not wearing your seatbelt, your insurance will not cover you by evacuating you to a reputable hospital in Germany.  Speed limits and stop lights are ritually ignored and those who try to adhere to basic road conventions are considered a menace. The average Romanian driver uses the horn more than the brakes, whether it’s to signal that you are in his way or the red light is taking too long for his liking or your shoe is untied or he has arrived outside your apartment block at 2:30AM and that you should come out to speak with him. Drunk driving is a matter of course on the weekends in the city and all winter long in the countryside.

In recent years, as nicer cars have made their way into Romania due to the advent of personal bank loans and television teaching Romanians to live beyond their means, an ugly, unwritten road hierarchy has developed.  That being, the person with the nicer car has the right-of-way.  This applies to stop sign intersections, passing slow trucks, snatching parking spots and line-jumping at the car wash.  Example, if there is a slow truck, followed by three Dacias and then a BMW, the BMW driver will take the first opportunity to pass the entire parade in one swoop (or weave in and out of the line to avoid oncoming cars, wholly expecting the Dacias to slow and make space for him) and if one of the leading Dacias should attempt to pass the truck during this interval, there’ll be hell to pay. A warning to all Romanian drivers visiting America: If you exhibit this behavior while driving anywhere in the US, particularly Los Angeles or Texas, you will involved in gun-play within the hour of your arrival.

I’ve heard a bit of hearsay about police targeting expensive cars and, in particular, cars with non-Romanian license plates for bribe shakedowns.  Whether or not this is true, I imagine this type of thing will become more and more rare as anti-corruption pressure bears down and more locals start driving Mercedes.  As is more and more common, once an individual has sunk his life savings into the expensive car, there’s literally no money left to appease opportunist cops (or even to eat a reasonable meal), and the authorities have already figured this out. Whatever the case, as a foreigner, being on your best driving behavior is advised, even if it means being the goat to every other vehicle on the road.

By the way, if an oncoming car flashes its high-beams at you, there’s a cop up ahead and you should immediately move to the far right of the road and slow to an appropriate groveling crawl, so as not to give him any excuse to pull you over and torment you for arbitrary offences (“Your car is too dirty”).

- Winter Driving

Take the white-knuckle, lawless nature described above, quadruple it and that’s driving in Romania in the winter.  While there is small fleet of plows with a passing dedication for clearing the roads, there is no countermeasure in place for dealing with ice.  No sand or salt and certainly no adjustment on the part of Romanian drivers to account for the conditions.  Accidents are frequent.  And it’s not just the maniacs taking high speed, blind turns on black ice.  Within four days of acquiring my car, I was involved in two minor, yet alarming super-slow, ice related accidents.  Once drifting into a bank of ice and snow during a U-turn, shattering my front-right turn signal (repaired in six minutes for US$3) and once downhill and backwards, with foot and parking brakes applied, into a parked earthmover.  Whether it be a dangerously steep street or a busy national road, ice is left to sit and cause havoc until it melts in the spring.

While Romania’s roads are normally a heart-quickening moonscape of potholes and ruptures, requiring total vigilance at all times, winter adds to the excitement with snow camouflaging these impediments.  You don’t know they’re there until the car bottoms out in a hole the size of a cow, which you’re helpless to avoid anyway as a quick evasive swerve would send you spinning off into a corn field.  It’s because of these conditions/accidents that I have suspended the bulk of my driving-related research until March.