While the road network in Poland still lags behind many of its western neighbours, in particular Germany, there has been continued significant improvement in the 2010s with the opening of many new motorway segments and refurbishments of some long-neglected thoroughfares that were used far above capacity.
In particular, travelling east-west is now generally much easier, with Berlin, Poznań and Warsaw connected with the A2 (E30), and the southern major metropoles in Lower Silesia, Silesia, Lesser Poland and Podkarpackie connected by the A4 (which continues as the E40 into Germany all the way to Cologne, and then further to Brussels and terminates in Calais in France).
Travelling north-south across the country is still not as comfortable as the major routes are still under construction or undergoing major repairs upgrades as of 2014. Most large and medium-sized cities have ring roads allowing you to bypass them even on lower-level roads, as do even smaller towns that are by the major roads. There are, however, still quite a lot of roads that are not up to snuff for the traffic they are supposed to carry and in disrepair.
The Poles' aggressive driving behaviour is legendary, but the reputation quite exaggerated. While you may find drivers unreasonably impatient, speed traps have calmed down the situation since the wild days when roads were open and cars few. Another factor that hinders speeding is the often poor quality of secondary roads and simply congestion - Poles own more cars per capita than some Western European nations. Always allow some extra time for possibly unfavourable driving conditions.
Speed limits are:
- 50 km/h in city (60 km/h 23:00-05:00),
- 90 km/h outside city,
- 100 km/h if lanes are separated,
- 100 km/h on single carriage way car-only roads (white car on the blue sign),
- 120 km/h on dual carriageway car-only roads, and
- 140 km/h on motorways/freeways (autostrada).
Roads marked droga szybkiego ruchu (rapid transit road) are frequently anything but that. The rule of roads going through towns and not around them still applies and speed limits change rapidly from the allowable 90 km/h to 70, down to 40 and then up again to 70 within only a few hundreds of metres. Speed cameras (in dark gray or yellow pole-mounted boxes, usually marked using proper sign) are common (and the income from those goes to the local council or government.) Radar-equipped traffic police are also frequent but that apparently does little to deter the speeding drivers. There has been a resurgence in CB radio popularity, drivers using it to warn each other about traffic hazards and speed traps.
Traffic code peculiarities
Some peculiarities of driving in Poland include:
- Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offence. BAC limits are: up to 0.025% - not prosecuted by law, up to 0.05% - an offence, above 0.05% - criminal offence (up to 2 years in jail). Penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are extremely severe. Your driver's license can also be confiscated when you are drunk without driving (e.g., if you cycle drunk). Despite the strict laws, drunken drivers are a serious problem in Poland, not least as there is ample anecdotal evidence of police officers accepting bribes instead of handing out traffic offence notices. Be especially careful during (and after) national holidays and late night on weekends on the small roads in the countryside as drivers commonly take to the road inebriated. Alcohol consumption is frequently a contributing factor in accidents.
- There is no right turn at a red light. Exception is when there is green arrow signal in which case you still have to come to a complete stop and yield to pedestrians and cross traffic (although the stop rule is seldom respected by Polish drivers). All above does not apply if right turning traffic has separate (red-yellow-green) signals.
- At a 'T-junction' or crossroads without traffic signs traffic at the right has right-of-way unless your road is a priority route, shown by a road sign displaying a yellow diamond with a white outline or a yellow sign with a black outline of the crossing with the priority flow in bold. This can be very confusing so keep your eyes open as this isn't always clear from the structure of the crossing (i.e. the lower quality, narrower and slower road coming in from the left may have right of way.)
- Driving with dipped lights on is obligatory at all times.
- A warning triangle is a mandatory part of a car's equipment and needs to be displayed some distance back from any accident or when, e.g. changing a tire. This does not mean that they are necessarily used every time they should be.
- In a junction with no traffic lights or specific signs, the vehicle on the right always has the right of way. Cars are allowed to be parked on pavements if road signs don't restrict it. Therefore, you should make sure there's at least 1.5-meter passage left for pedestrians and always check if the car is at least 10 meters away from any pedestrian, railway or road crossing. If you don't follow the rules, you may find your car towed away.
- Children of all ages who are shorter than 150 cm (4’11”), with some exceptions, must ride in a child car seat.
- You must use headlights year round, at all times, day and night.
- The use of mobile/cellular phones while driving is prohibited except for hands-free models.
Driving in cities
Poles work long hours so peak time in major cities frequently lasts until after 20:00. Roadworks are common as many new road developments are under way and roads require frequent maintenance.
Parking in cities and towns is often allowed on sidewalks, unless of course there is a no-parking sign. There is usually no provision for parking on the tar-sealed part of the street so do not leave your car parked at the curb, unless it is clearly a parking bay. Parking meters in cities and even smaller towns are widely used.
Communicating with other drivers
Some drivers flash their headlights to warn those approaching from the opposite direction of a police control nearby (you are likely to encounter this custom in many other countries). It may also mean that you need to turn your lights on since dipped headlights need to be on at all times while driving. A "thank you" between drivers can be expressed by waving your hand or, when the distance is too great, by turning on blinkers or hazard lights - typically a quick left-right-left pattern is used for the blinkers; for the hazard light a one or two blinks.
Hazard lights can be used to indicate failures but also as a way of showing that the vehicle is rapidly slowing down, or already stopped in a traffic jam on a highway.
CB radio is popular with road warriors, who exchange warnings regarding traffic conditions and speed traps. Another common warning is a single front lights flashing from a car coming from the opposite direction, indicating that there's a speed trap on the way.
Gas and service stations
At the gas stations
Pb means unleaded gasoline (Pb is the periodic table symbol for plumbum, or lead) and ON (olej napędowy in Polish) means diesel fuel. Petrol and diesel are roughly the same price and quite in line with prices across the European Union, with Poland tending to be one of the cheaper countries of the EU with regard to that. LPG is widely available, both at 'branded' gas stations and independent distributors and is about half the price of petrol. CNG is not quite popular, but CNG filling stations can be found in major cities and some other locations where CNG-fuelled fleets are based or natural gas is extracted or stored. Ethanol-based fuel (E85 or E100), common in Sweden, for example, is almost nowhere to be found.
Electric vehicle charging stations are very few and far in between and generally limited to the largest cities, where you can find them in large shopping malls and otherwise prominent locations where they serve mostly PR purposes, as there are no incentives to owning or driving an electric car in Poland and the electric car fleet is minuscule.
The largest gas station chains in Poland are Orlen, Lotos (the two are Poland's local oil companies), Shell, Statoil, BP and Lukoil. Some supermarket chains, including Tesco and Auchan, operate a network of gas stations next to their stores. Credit cards or debit cards can be used to pay at most gas stations, although you may still find a non-branded local station that may not be accepting cards. Most drivers are filling up their vehicles themselves and otherwise helping themselves at gas stations, although there are attendants at some. The only chain that consistently provides attendants at all stations is Shell - although, as many drivers do not wish to call upon their services, you may have to indicate you would like for them to help you. You are supposed to tip the gas station attendant small change, e.g. between 2 or 5 zł depending on services rendered.
Prices (Feb 2017): diesel 4.70 zł/L, Pb 95 4.80 zł/L, Pb 98 5.10 zł/L, LPG 2.20 zł/L.
In autumn or in spring it is common for small traders to set up their stands with fruit or wild mushrooms along the roads. They don't always stay in places where it's safe for cars to stop and you should be careful of drivers stopping abruptly and be watchful if you want to stop yourself.
Wild mushrooms are a specialty if you know how to cook them. The people who picked the mushrooms may not be very good at telling the good ones from the poisonous, so exercise caution. Never feed wild mushrooms to small children as they are particularly vulnerable. Rely on the judgement of your Polish friends if you consider them reasonable people.