Thursday, 21 February 2013

Russia: Driver etiquette

Former Tatarstan resident James Higham gives his experience of motoring among the Ivans:

Jesse's running a vid on Russian roads and drivers: There is a quite violent part in the vid where the driver jumps up, beats a pedestrian who has fallen over and drags him off the road before returning to his car. As a reader noted:
He didn't "trip". It's a common scam in Russia for people to do that in front of cars, then claim they were knocked down. The driver clearly isn't falling for that nonsense and... makes it clear. Good on him.
Jesse speaks of dashcams and it's true we used to run all manner of equipment. One of the most important was the radar detector on the dash or windscreen, afterwards made illegal. It was basically war over there between drivers and the GAI [afterwards renamed], i.e. the traffic police, and between drivers themselves. The GAI would take to hiding behind roadside kiosks and the like and spring out at you after having tracked you with radar guns. So there was this phenomenon where traffic as a whole would go at breakneck speed, slow to 40 kph - the whole road full of traffic, not just some cars - and then speed up again - that's how people got around.

Another hazard was the official cavalcade with the President or a minister and police would clear the highway ahead of them coming through. If you failed to get out of the way, they would physically get you out of the way - never happened to me but did to people I knew. There's a definite hierarchy on the road and people act in character. If you're pulled up [again not me but I was told tales] and instead of trying to placate the officers, you ask, "You really wish to do this, do you?" this is often sufficient to make them think they have someone on their hands they weren't told about. Cars often had separate reg plates to designate who they were and I was once in one of these. When we were stopped, they saw these and the document and waved us through.

Long traffic jams are not unknown either through total, helpless disorganization of the road system. What's unusual here are the orderly lanes - more on that further down:

I once [I claim accidentally] ran a Mercedes who was trying to butt in ahead of me off the road. Later, I was told I was still lucky to be alive or not beaten up. I think it surprised the Merc driver. I once tooted the police to get a move on and I think that is not done either there or here. My own position varied - being British bought me a fair bit but it also brought out prejudice in those who saw an easy touch and those wanting to make a point. As my car was a souped up Lada, if they didn't know I was foreign, then I had to conform to the unwritten road code or be stomped on.

The vid above shows people beating on others but that was less the case as far as I saw it than just the sheer number of accidents. On the stretch going into town [6km], it was unusual to see less than three or four bingles of some kind, often a multiple car pile up. There were many reasons for this. Part of it is that the car culture for all was still a relatively recent phenomenon in 1999/2000 and credit was only just coming in to blight the Russian people even further. The result of the influx of new cars on the never-never, along with woeful driver training, women on the roads now and the scam of money under the counter for licences - all these, plus the police corruption in taking bribes for pulling a driver up and fining him or her - these contributed to the mayhem.

Then there were the roads and their state. Designed for a more leisurely era, the cities had to catch up with the C20th and when four or five roads, potholed, pockmarked, with crumbling edges, all converged in one place, when the general population waiting for buses had not taken it onboard that pedestrians should not swarm onto the road when five lanes of traffic were also doing that - there were the conditions for further mayhem.

You can see the converging traffic all trying to get across our main bridge in Kazan:

Then there is the attitude of Russians that what they are doing at that time takes precedence over all else, combined with the word "just". So, if you were in heavy traffic and wanted to turn right across traffic into a new supermarket, you just went, you thought you'd just squeeze through that gap, you just expected the traffic rushing towards you from the lights would politely stop and wait for you with a cheery wave of the hand. I think you saw in that clip the cheery waves of hands.

Driving on Russian roads is like our concept of what it must have been like in the wild west. I've seen cars happily driving along footpaths, going up on grassy embankments, going every which way to get through. In fact I developed the ability to get through with applied aggression mixed with caution. It was useful to appear to be a nutter as people would let you through ... or else block you and beat you up. Frankly, with no lanes on most roads because the markings are worn away during winter and under heavy traffic, drivers tend to self-activate lanes as you saw in the second pic above. And equally, there are drivers who ignore all that.

How can all this be? Well, for the reasons given above plus the demoralization of the Russian people over decades. Where they were is where we are going ourselves in the UK but we are still in the early stages where people still care about fines and doing the right thing and all that. In Russia, the laws got to such a ridiculous stage where there were even laws against the laws, to the point where it was literally impossible to drive legally. The very fact that there was a small space ahead only for the whole column of traffic to pass through, meaning you crossed a double line, made you liable to a fine and points. Most times the police would not try to intervene but if they were short of money in the coffers that week, then the police car would be stationed the other side of that gap and they'd randomly pull over motorists in a steady stream of revenue.

There was an unwritten rule that you flashed your lights to cars coming the other way if the GAI were hiding back behind you half a kilometre or so and if he flashed back, it was to say thank you. So drivers do work together, it's not total war and in carparks, people tend to help each other out, especially in winter. They made the flashing of lights illegal. The State knew all about this and how it was diverted to private pockets and to be sure, I didn't mind this as I knew my "fine" was going to that man and his family, or else to booze but that was better than to the State.

Defending the State for the moment, it was impossible to keep the roads pothole free - the winter put paid to beautiful road surfaces. There was a year in which a German firm tendered for road repair with a 20 year surface guarantee but the cost was way beyond anything the State was prepared to pay on mere roads which people use.

And so the mayhem goes on, total gridlock at peak hour, frayed tempers and sometimes violence. The clip above is actually Russians trying to sensationalize - the fights are less overall, the actual accidents far more.
Brave girls - things can come out of nowhere in Russia:

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