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What I Learned About Driving In Romania

I get it now. I understand Romanian drivers and their follies. It's something I thought would never happen. All it took to shape me into a Romanian road rage machine was one month of driving around Cluj and a 400 km round trip. I'm kidding about the rage part.

The idea of driving in Cluj was intimidating. Last time I'd driven manual shift was almost ten years ago when a co-worker asked me to drive her and her newly purchased, Pontiac Firefly home because she had no idea how to do it. So of course I stalled that little bastard all over the place. Little surprise that the idea of driving along busy and narrow European streets was unappealing - especially after years of driving automatic on wide, North American roads.

But I managed. Stalled an average of once per trip during the first week, and then a couple of times in the second week, and now, a little over a month later, I sometimes stall at stoplights when I forget I'm driving stick and leave it in gear when I release the clutch. Happens.

I didn't truly understand the psyche of the Romanian driver until I left town though. When you drive outside the city in a country that has no highways, you're limited to one lane in each direction. Each trip is a race against time - you're facing the prospect of reaching a two hour destination in twice that time. You never know what's going to hold you up, so you tend to get impatient with trucks and other slow movers. You're also constantly forced to decrease your speed as you enter towns and villages, but by respecting the speed limit in places where local traffic is a horse and cart, all you're really doing is holding up other drivers. So you cope by being really good at getting around whatever's in your way - except dogs, or as a friend call them, 'the raccoons of Romania' . If I have to judge by the roadkill, people tend to not go around them too often.

Back in town, you start looking at road signs as suggestions and you don't let little things like lane markings worry you much. As irresponsible at this sounds, it's not surprising given the state of things. In addition to your fellow drivers, you're putting up with plenty of static obstacles: bad signage, poorly marked construction, potholes, cars parked on the side of the road, surprise turning lanes, or lanes that end  into an oncoming lane - a personal favourite. The best way you can truly cope is by doing more driving. The more you familiarize yourself with a road, the better you'll navigate it next time. You remember where certain turns have potholes, or places where other drivers are liable to drive into your lane, where pedestrians like to jaywalk, and other things that make driving here feel a bit like real-life Grand Theft Auto (minus the grand theft and violence).

So I get it. I'm not surprised at the erratic lane changes, at aggressive overtaking (you never know when you'll get another opportunity), or that people tend to drive according to conditions and surroundings instead of abiding by a systemic set of rules. What does surprise me is that there are relatively few accidents and that cars appear to be in good shape, even when things like this happen. Amidst all this chaos there is a sort of order. People expect the worst so they're alert and continually honing their defensive driving skills. So much so that Cluj drivers barely use their horns. I've gained a lot of respect for drivers here because they're pretty damn good at avoiding each other given the conditions. The idea that driving in downtown Toronto is in any way complicated is laughable to me now.

Speaking of which, here are some things that I miss about North American driving:

1. Four-way stop signs
2. Stoplights you can see no matter where you stop
3. Not having to tuck in the rear-view mirrors when parking on the side of a road
4. Right turns on red lights
5. Highway driving :(

That being said, whenever I drive there again, it's going to be boring compared to this.

Image source


  1. "What does surprise me is that there are relatively few accidents and that cars appear to be in good shape"

    Relative to what? Romania has one of the worst, if not the worst, record for accidents and death in the EU and is one of the very few countries not to record a decrease in the number of accidents over the previous decade. I find the driving standards horrific - overtaking on blind bends, poor understanding of conditions (rain, fog, etc), aggressive tailgating, using phones whilst at the wheel, and so on.

    The cars seem is relatively good condition because they rarely last more than 4-5 years before getting scrapped or written off, due to serious accidents or general wear and tear from road conditions. Also, until about 5 years ago, the old Dacia 1300 was more or less ubiquitous, I reckon about 50% of the cars on the road were some model of the 1300, Berliner or Break. Then Dacia did a deal where you could cash in your old one and get a new Logan at a discounted price. As a result, a lot of old cars disappeared off the roads all of a sudden.

    1. I should've been more explicit, I was referring to city driving, where accidents are pretty rare - at least in Cluj. The roads outside of town are a menace though, I wouldn't drive at night.

  2. Aha, ok, fair enough then. Hardly ever see accidents in Bucharest either, except fender benders of course, but then the traffic rarely get above 20kpm.

    I have to drive out of town a lot and also avoid driving at night, preferring to leave at first light when the roads are clear and all the drunks are in bed (or in the morgue).

    Another reason for mostly new cars on the roads might be the environmental tax that means anything more than a few years old will end up incurring a tax higher than the value of the car when first registered, probably making it worth shelling out extra for a newer model.

  3. Nah, I've had plenty of time to view Romania's traffic from the sidewalks and from inside cars driven by other people, and I wouldn't risk my life here by driving without serious second thoughts. Driving is pretty much a life-threatening exercise even if everybody is obeying the laws, so as soon as people start ignoring lane markings and diving through red traffic lights you're just playing Russian Roulette. All those ambulances rushing everywhere in Bucharest must be going somewhere, and my guess it ain't to the site of the latest covrigi choking.

  4. I am a driver in Cluj for almost 10 years now. I had 1 major accident - that resulted in some reparations of the car but it is still drivable. Driving here is easy once u get used with the traffic. If you are a normal driver that respects signs and so on you wouldn't have an issue.
    What I have to say is that you have to drive faster where the road lets you. If there are 2 lines per side and you want to go legally please stay on the left side:) ant let the other ones pass you by.
    Rules for Cluj at least: :)
    1) never drive 50km/h except rare occasions when you are tired or someone is sick in you car.
    2)You have to drive at least 60km/h (this is legal no problems with police for this)
    3)remember the places where the police stopped you - they might do it again in the same place so it is good to drive legally in that areas
    4)respect the pedestrian or you will have lots of issues.
    5)when you see a car that has different plates from a different district or country be aware...or you might get into an accident - you will find out that cars from other countries have no insurance (happened to me and it s...s)
    6)don't dream when really gets you "honked"

    The gold rule: just DRIVE and shut up:)

    1. Heheh, thanks for the tips. I like #2 best :)
      You're right about the Golden Rule thought. It seems like pretty much everyone sticks to it. Haven't noticed any road rage incidents yet.

  5. Hi Matt, did you get your Romanian license? Or is there a way to transfer international licenses? I'm moving back to Cluj (American citizen with permis de sedere) but this time I want to buy a car and do some driving. Didn't know if I would have to take the test in Romania or if there was someway to 'exchange' my US license with a Romanian one.

    1. This post seems to have some good answers re. vehicle purchase for non-Romanians:

      Also, it's better to have your non-Romanian licensed renewed before coming instead of letting it expire here.

  6. I actually really enjoyed driving in Romania for the week I was there. Yes, traffic was aggressive and roads weren't in the best condition compared to Germany, but the roads were in better condition and were better marked/signed than the roads in Canada where I live. Drivers were aggressive but very good and although many times traffic flew straight through left turn lanes, it was very efficient and there were no traffic jams. Roundabouts are fantastic and should replace all 4 way stops in North America. As for stray dogs, I think i seen 2 or 3 while driving 1000ish km. Trafficc on the "highways" outside towns and cities moved onto the shoulder to let me go by. I wish I lived there honestly. Loved everything about driving there.

  7. After doing a road trip to Greece from Bucharest, I have to say that road from Sofia Bulgaria back to Bucharest is one of the scariest and grueling. It was entirely at night, single lane roads with absolutely no light, semis at 60 kmh and crazies behind you wanting to maintain 130 kmh, passing in the opposing lane where it's so dark not even the high beams yield way to any confidence in your safety. When I arrived back in Romania it actually felt like an improvement.


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