Trade Lanes : Jammed in A 'Pipeline' Of Trucks

Fifth of Seven Parts

I had not driven very far west out of Warsaw before I understood why Poland has the highest traffic-fatality rate in Europe.

The E-30 is the Continent's key East-West road artery, running 1,000 miles from Moscow to Berlin. On the map it looks impressive; on the ground in Poland it is a simple two-lane highway.

While it was adequate for the sparse traffic of the communist era, it is now overwhelmed by the endless convoy of 18-wheel juggernauts that thunder their way from one end of Europe to the other.

And for those who drive this dangerous road, survival depends on learning a few local tricks.

The real problem on the E-30 is passing vehicles, and you don't have to be Michael Schumacher to want to pass a truck grinding along at 50 miles per hour all day.

Since oncoming traffic is almost continuous on this road, simply pulling out and passing is not possible.

Instead, the vehicle being passed is expected to pull over onto the shoulder of the road, leaving you to pass along the center line, while oncoming vehicles also pull over onto their shoulder to let you by.

This would be tolerable, except for three problems. First, oncoming vehicles are doing the same thing, and you are as likely as not to find another car coming straight at you down the middle of the road.

Second, the shoulder is normally the preserve of pedestrians, cyclists, and horse-drawn carts. And third, 18-wheelers have worn such deep ruts into the road that ordinary cars can get trapped in them.

So each time I tried to pass one of the steaming giants, I had to: check that nobody behind was trying to pass me; check that nobody coming toward me was passing someone else; check that there was no defenseless pedestrian on the shoulder; jump my small car out of the road ruts; and hold my breath.

In the rain, this was not always easy. And the line of trucks never ends. The E-30 is a lifeline to Russia and the other former Soviet republics, which gobble up all the consumer goods that the trucks haul in from the West.

Indeed, there could be no more eloquent illustration of Moscow's dependence on Europe for manufactured goods than traffic jams on the E-30.

Polish customs officials told me that more than 1,000 trucks cross the border in each direction every day. That means that on average, there is one tractor-trailer every 250 yards from Poland's eastern border to its western border, 24 hours a day.

They never stop. Fruit, vegetables, meat, candy, electronics, clothes, furniture - you name it - European firms are selling and shipping it along this road to Russia.

And what are the trucks bringing back? Of all the drivers I consulted, only one was hauling anything at all - a load of cattle hides. The rest were empty, racing home across the Polish plain to pick up another shipment from Strasbourg or The Hague or Stuttgart - and then turn around and head back to Moscow.

Russia's principal exports that pay for all these goods flow less visibly through oil and gas pipelines.

On such a major trade route, it is not surprising to find roadside commerce flourishing. In June, farmers had set up their carts at the edge of their orchards and were selling plump, black, sweet cherries. In autumn, they sell baskets of succulent wild mushrooms.

Another roadside sight is the young women in short skirts, their hair piled high on their heads, waving listlessly at passing truckers, seeking customers.

And most extraordinarily, entrepreneurs have transformed a five-mile stretch of the road beyond Poznan into the continental capital of "garden gnomedom." I passed a string of outlets, their yards crowded with life-size, garishly painted Marilyn Monroes, ordinary gnome-size gnomes pushing wheelbarrows or fishing or sitting on toadstools, and varied collections of plaster statuary.

The customers for these garden decorations, I was told, come mainly from Germany. Certainly I didn't see any truckers stopping. But nor did I see them stopping for the girls or for the fruit.

They are also wary of potential hijackers. Taner, a genial Turkish driver whom I found eating a picnic lunch of bread, olives, tinned white Turkish cheese, and tahina sesame paste told me that two men had climbed into his cab that very morning in downtown Warsaw, after getting him to pull over.

Had he used force to get them out? I asked. "No," he said. "I don't know the protocol here in Poland." But he had resisted enough that the two would-be robbers gave up.

"In this place we're advised to drive together," explains Brian Scofield, a veteran British driver who was driving one vehicle in a three-truck, London-to-Warsaw convoy. "Three are better than one if you run into any problems."

One of his mates slips an evil-looking switchblade from under his seat. "I call it my bread knife if anyone asks," he says with a smile.

The truckers' lives will be easier once the authorities build the motorway they are planning. At present it is just a shadowy gray theoretical line on the map, except for one 30-mile stretch that opens up like a blessing all of a sudden.

Along the highway are the usual signs - setting speed limits, banning pedestrians and tractors - and one very Polish sign: a horse and cart silhouette with a red line through it.

Although Poland feels European, the countryside looks in many respects like Western Europe must have looked 50 years ago. The Poles are leaping a generation in their transition from communism to the new Europe, from horse-drawn carts to Audis.

Not that this necessarily pleases the men who make their living on this highway. "In the old days it was OK when they all had little Ladas and Polskis," recalls Mr. Scofield, referring to locally made communist-era cars.

"Then they had to take their place in the queue. But now they've got Volvos and BMWs and these fast cars, they do what they like. And they've no idea at all about safety."

* Previous articles ran July 28, 30, 31, and Aug. 3, and can be found at the Monitor's Web site ( The next article, which runs Thursday, looks at how Europe views its differences.

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