This road accident shook an entire nation. On April 19, 2020, a 22-year-old man named Christian slammed his SUV into a red light-stopped vehicle at an intersection, driving almost three times faster than permitted. The accident took place in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. As a result, the driver of the stopped car passed away from his injuries on the way to the hospital. The incident gained popularity as the deceased turned out to be a popular TV host and prominent journalist. The public was outraged as Christian tested positive for alcohol and drug use at the crime scene.
This tragic accident raises an important question: How safe is driving in Bulgaria – a European member state? News of drinking and driving resulting in accidents abounds daily, despite traffic laws and regulations.
I have been driving in Bulgaria for the past 10 years while visiting the country. Here is my honest opinion based on my experiences behind the wheel during this time. Take it as you like or as kindhearted advice with a bit of caution.
The Age of the Car Park
We can’t start this discussion without mentioning that the majority of cars on the road in Bulgaria are, on average, 20 years old. Bulgarians are reluctant to part with their old smoking gas guzzlers, either for economic reasons or simply due to sentimentality. Many of these cars are imported from Western European countries like Germany, Italy, and others.
These vehicles pose hazards on the road. They are slow compared to modern cars and are often seen broken down or abandoned by the roadside. On freeways, for example, where speeds are high, these old cars struggle to keep up. You might find yourself having to slow down considerably as the car in front of you drives even below the minimum speed for the road.
Highways in Bulgaria typically consist of two-lane roads in each direction and are built for high speeds. There are two types of highways: motorways (also known as freeways) and expressways. Motorways have an emergency lane on each side of the road and allow for a maximum speed of 140 km/h (87 mph). Expressways do not have an emergency lane, and their speed limit is 120 km/h (75 mph). Some signs designate the type of road as you enter it. The lane to the right is where you should drive, and passing of vehicles is only allowed in the left lane.
Regardless of the type of road, expect cars to zip by you at speeds of 200 km/h (125 mph) or higher. This reckless driving poses a potential risk to other traffic, especially when you want to pass a vehicle on the left. You may look in the mirror, thinking it’s safe to pass, but the next second you might find yourself startled by a car horn and the blinking headlights of a vehicle cruising at high speeds, warning you not to make the move. Due to its high speed, you may be unable to detect this vehicle in your mirror on time.
Driving at high speeds in the left lane is typical for Bulgarian highways. Be on the lookout for such vehicles and stay away from their path. Should you try to move into the left lane to pass a vehicle, the fastest-moving car quickly catches up with you and starts to tailgate, dangerously close with its headlights visible in your rearview mirror. If you make “the mistake” of staying in the left lane and driving within the speed limit, expect honking, flashing of high beams, and even closer tailgating, which is extremely dangerous at such speeds. It is nerve-wracking. Of course, avoid eye contact with the other driver, as road rage can lead to serious trouble.
Driving in Bulgaria might rarely lead to being stopped by a traffic police officer. In my ten years of driving in Bulgaria, I haven’t been stopped even once. But if it does happen, expect a check of the validity of your documents, such as car registration, insurance card, and driver’s license. If you are found to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or if you committed a traffic violation or caused an accident, you’ll be issued a fine and might face significant trouble.
However, traffic police presence is rare. They are mostly seen on the road to divert traffic when necessary, and that’s about it. More often, you will encounter traffic stops on major roads leading to and from cities. But on highways where cars are cruising at speeds way above the speed limit, traffic police are not present. This is one of the reasons drivers become bolder and more aggressive.
And even if you get caught breaking the speed limit by a stationary speed trap, which is more common, drivers remain fearless. Getting a traffic violation is not a big deal. Bulgaria is notorious for its low rate of violation recoverability.
Traffic officers are unable to collect fines from drivers at the time of the violation. This seems to embolden drivers who break the law to walk away from the situation without immediate repercussions. So, you are given a written violation or issued one electronically and expected to pay it sometime in the future, if at all.
There are legal measures to ensure you pay your traffic fines, tied to buying and selling property, getting a loan, or even passing an annual mandatory safety check for your vehicle; without it, you can’t legally continue to drive the vehicle on the road.
You should understand that the Bulgarian terrain is mostly mountainous. Roads, for that matter, have tight turns as they pass through mountain passes at high elevations. Given the temperate climate with four distinct seasons, driving in Bulgaria can be quite an adventure.
Do not underestimate the climate and season of the year. Summer downpours with high winds and hail, or winter blizzards, are not uncommon. Be well prepared. However, one thing we can’t prepare for is the condition of the roads.
Rain, snow, heat, and ice contribute to the early degradation of roads, requiring regular maintenance. But many roads are simply not up to par. Driving on highways or major thoroughfares is relatively safe, but once you enter the countryside, it’s a completely different story.
One can argue that roads in Bulgaria fall under classifications, with roads between small towns and villages being at the bottom of the list. They are the least maintained. Be prepared to encounter unsafe road conditions, with degrading pavement due to a lack of proper and timely maintenance over the years.
I’ll never forget my trip to a small village called Muhovo, tucked in a semi-mountainous region, just an hour’s drive from the capital, Sofia. Two-thirds of the trip is on the freeway, and then you have to take an exit and drive up winding roads into the mountains. In many parts, the road is full of holes, making it almost impassable for a normal vehicle. What you need is an off-road vehicle. And it’s not because the village is remote or the mountain is so high. It’s just a common road condition for hundreds of thousands of kilometers of roads between small villages and towns.
Roads lack road markings, and overgrown vegetation on the side of the road makes driving treacherous, especially with poor road visibility. Roads are two lanes only – one lane in each direction. Driving should be slow and with utmost caution. Cellphone service is patchy and unreliable in many areas of higher elevation, in case you need to call for road assistance.
Roadkill in Bulgaria is especially noticeable, with gruesome scenes of animals hit while trying to cross the road. The animals predominantly affected are cats and dogs. It’s worth mentioning that when most drivers see animals crossing, they won’t slow down or try to save their lives. Quite the contrary, some people take pride in pressing the gas pedal to accelerate and possibly hit the poor animal on purpose. Or they simply drive as if they don’t care.
Neighborhood streets, where stray cats and dogs are commonly seen roaming, are often sites of such acts. It’s hard to accept that most drivers simply drive too fast to care. As spaying and neutering are seen as unnatural by the common people, the population of stray cats and dogs grows exponentially, leading to more roadkill.
Disposing of newborn kittens and puppies by remote neighborhood roads is not uncommon, and the poor animals often end up flattened. Animal-conscious Facebook groups abound with posts asking for help with abandoned pets all over the country. I find it a contributing factor in seeing so much roadkill. I frequented a 40 km road section between the towns of Dupnica and Kyustendil, and I haven’t seen so many dead animals on the road anywhere else I have been to.
Some might argue that what I talk about can be seen in any country. However, in Bulgaria, I have witnessed a lack of law enforcement on the road, excessive road rage, aggressive, and reckless driving, and total disrespect for traffic signals. Running a red light seems like normal driving even in crowded intersections.
Christian, who also tried to run a red light and killed an innocent person as a result, received a 9-year prison sentence. His verdict came just days ago. But will the public get the message? Stricter laws most likely won’t change how driving in Bulgaria has become. So, the next time you decide to drive keep in mind that the risks in Bulgaria might be higher.
The one-way street predicament
In recent years, neighborhood streets have undergone a transformation, becoming one-way roads due to the establishment of parking zones by local authorities. This change has successfully organized the previously chaotic street parking and significantly improved navigation in the area. However, despite these efforts, a considerable number of local residents completely disregard the one-way design, choosing instead to drive in the opposite direction to save a mere minute or less by maneuvering around the block to reach their residences. Regrettably, this prevalent behavior has resulted in a disruptive and tumultuous driving experience on the local streets.
Drivers heading the wrong way often stubbornly refuse to yield, insisting that law-abiding citizens reverse and grant them the wrongful right of way to quickly clear the street they illegally entered. This recurrent practice has led to numerous close calls at intersections, where drivers making turns into one-way streets unexpectedly encounter vehicles driving in the opposite direction. The safest course of action in such situations is to yield and let the wrongful driver pass, thereby allowing you to enter the street in the correct direction.
Sadly, the lack of enforcement in neighborhood streets has given these offenders the freedom to act with impunity, emboldening them to persist in this behavior day after day. Therefore, it becomes imperative for everyone to remain vigilant while navigating residential areas, driving at a slow pace to avoid potentially hazardous encounters.
Recent changes to the traffic regulations
After enduring public pressure and widespread citizen protests, the Bulgarian parliament recently has implemented several amendments to the traffic laws. The primary objective is to heighten the penalties for violations such as driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) and drugs. These modifications also extend to individuals who decline to undergo blood alcohol tests following traffic stops by police.
According to the newly revised criminal code, if a driver is apprehended while driving with a blood alcohol concentration exceeding 1.2 parts per million, the offender could face a prison sentence ranging from 1 to 3 years, along with a fine ranging from 200 to 1,000 BGN ($112 to $560). In cases where an offender has a prior conviction involving a blood alcohol concentration exceeding 1.2 parts per million, and they commit a subsequent violation with a concentration surpassing 0.5 parts per million, the vehicle could be confiscated again, accompanied by a prison term of 1 to 5 years and a fine ranging from 500 to 1,500 BGN ($280 to $842). For driving after using “narcotic substances or their analogs,” the penalties include vehicle confiscation, a prison term of 1 to 3 years, and a fine ranging from 500 to 1,500 BGN ($280 to $842). In cases of a repeated offense involving driving after drug use, the repercussions comprise of vehicle confiscation, a prison term of 1 to 5 years, and a fine ranging from 500 to 1,500 BGN.
Given the recent surge in fatalities attributed to alcohol-impaired driving in Bulgaria, current vehicle confiscation as a punitive measure seems a justifiable course of action. However, numerous experts have voiced skepticism, pointing out the unreliability of drug tests used by traffic authorities, which could potentially provide grounds for offenders to challenge the test outcomes.
Public sentiment is divided concerning the effectiveness of these amplified measures. Some citizens regard the escalation of penalties as a quintessentially Bulgarian absurdity, asserting that previous sanctions would suffice if they were consistently enforced.
There’s a prevailing belief that habitual wrongdoers, shielded by the protection of law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges, will continue to evade consequences despite the changes. This sentiment stems from widespread perceptions of corruption within the Bulgarian police system.
Many individuals believe that the vehicle confiscation measure will predominantly affect ordinary citizens while failing to address the core issue of corruption within the system. This prevailing distrust traces back to systemic corruption, prompting individuals to question why lawmakers haven’t considered implementing similar measures in the opposite direction—such as confiscating assets belonging to corrupt prosecutors, judges, and police officers.