I’m borrowing a photo I saw here, which illustrates the daily traffic chaos in Greek streets better than any of mine.
Traffic in Greece is chaotic: drivers run red lights, make unexpected turns without signalling, squeeze their vehicles in between others, overtake without much regard of who’s in front or behind, go up one-way streets, drive on sidewalks and pedestrian streets, exceed the speed limit compulsively.
Pedestrians, on the other hand, jaywalk with complete disregard of zebra crossings and traffic lights, weave in an out of gridlocked vehicles and are often found walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk.
What the law says
People who come to Greece often ask me whether our traffic code is so much different than those of other countries.
The answer is no.
The laws, rules and regulations are the same. We use the same traffic lights and signals. The traffic code conforms to international standards. Yet it seems oddly absent from every-day reality.
Of course, there’s a reason for everything. Hasty, unplanned urban development has led to cities without any urban planning. Free spaces are few and small and the streets were never designed to accomodate vehicles. Yet vehicles exist and they need space which they create by occupying any available free square foot, even if designated for other uses.
Parked along the kerb, cars eliminate entire street lanes. Yet, as streets become narrower, drivers become gridlocked and drive more aggressively, in an attempt to escape traffic jams or make up for lost time. Even moderate, law abiding drivers, quickly learn that slowing down when the light turns orange exposes one to the risk of being rammed from behind by a driver who speeds instead.
Crossing into the opposite lane, speeding whenever possible, even driving on sidewalks and zipping down pedestrianized streets have become commonplace. Bikes have come to claim an almost equal status to bicycles or pedestrians, even using the same crossings, as in the video below.
Parking space is at a premium and so inadequate that parking legally could barely accomodate half of the vehicles in use. As sidewalks disappear under masses of parked cars and scooters, pedestrians are forced to walk in the road. Tired of waiting at crossings where drivers never even slow down or at traffic lights where cars drive on, pedestrians soon learn to cross the streets at their own discretion (and peril) wherever and whenever they can. Greeks have become so accustomed to walking in the street and jaywalking that they scarcely even think about it. They simply move a bit to the side when they hear a car approaching.
Plagued by a chronic lack of staff and the perpetual “laissez-faire” attitude that’s typical of most Greeks, the police tend to turn a blind eye to traffic violations, provided they don’t block an entire street. It is rumored that they have instructions to let people park anywhere to cover up for the failure of local and state authorities to provide parking spaces. Others claim that the police are simply poorly trained and ignore some of the simplest rules they are called to enforce, as evident below:
Whichever the case, the police have their work cut out for them. Demoralised by reductions of pay due to the crisis, they are called on to enforce a law that circumstances make impossible not to break. It is no wonder people become indignant when asked to pay a ticket especially as other, high-profile law-breakers (such as corrupt politicians), are being seen escaping scot-free.
The problem goes deeper, but I won’t go into that right now. I’ll simply add that the co-existence of cars, scooters and pedestrians next to each other on the road is a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the number of traffic accidents in Greece is extremely high and that of accidents involving pedestrians even more so.
How this affects you
Needless to say, if it is dangerous for the Greeks it must be for foreigners too. However, walking or driving in Greece is neither impossible, nor a death sentence. If you are careful and use some common sense, you should be all right. Above all, be alert and keep your eyes on other road users. Never assume that they will act legally or even sensibly, so play it safe. Remeber, better safe than sorry.
For more information about how to safely navigate Greek streets, see my next post, with tips for all road users.