Friday, 12 December 2008
The Russian government announced a few days ago an amendment to bring the procedure of reporting road accidents into line with European standards. From the 1st January 2009 any person who dies up to a month after being involved in a road accident (as opposed to the current system that only counts those who die within 48 hours of the incident) will be considered a victim of this accident and will thus be counted in the official statistics.
The number of deaths on Russian roads recorded under the current system is already notably high. In 2008, according to official statistics, 24,200 people died in road accidents and 222,300 were injured. Impressive figures for a country with a population of 141,900,000. Just to put this in perspective, compare this number with that of road deaths in two countries with similar populations; Bangladesh, where in 2004 there was an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 deaths (adjusted from the official figures due to the rarity of such accidents being properly reported), and Japan, where the figure for 2007 stands at 5,744.
For those with macabre interest in such details, the statistics are updated daily on the Department for Transport's website http://www.gibdd.ru/ (Russian only), so you can track one of the big contributors to the population decline on a day to day basis. Yesterday’s figures report 535 accidents causing 75 deaths and 594 injuries. Five of these accidents were caused by drink driving.
According to the information published on the website, 80% of accidents are caused by drivers simply not following the rules of the road. If you’ve ever taken a taxi or tried to cross a road in Moscow then you’ll have been on either the giving or receiving end of this lethal threat and will know what we’re talking about here. For those who haven’t had this experience, take for example the general attitude to ambulances. Pulling over or slowing down to let an ambulance past may add a few vital seconds on to your journey, so it’s better to just drive faster. If that darn ambulance should manage to overtake you, then drive as close behind it as possible; at the next set of traffic lights you might be able to squeeze your way through with it.
However, to label Russia’s drivers simply as insubordinate and reckless would be missing the bigger picture (although it would not be a wholly unfair accusation). Taking a brief look at the current system to obtain one’s driving licence brings you closer to the heart of the matter. A driving license is impossibly difficult to obtain in an entirely official way due to a maze of rules, complicated theory tests and corruption amongst examiners. It’s much easier, cheaper and faster to reply to one of the numerous adverts on the metro that advertise “external exam inscription” (amongst other things such as visa registration and medical certificates on demand… but that’s another story).
A few friends of mine did the maths and proceeded to obtain their licences here as opposed to in Europe, where obviously you would have to spend a lot of money in order to… well... learn how to drive. The whole shebang costs around 600 euros. The situation unfolds thus; a private driving instructor who advertises “exam help” will show you the basics. This part brings to mind my granddad describing how he earned his driving licence whilst in the British army; you simply sat in a truck and should you manage to arrive at the designated mark a few hundred feet away with the truck in one piece then your driving skills were confirmed and you received your licence. This, however, was in 1944. It’s obviously no longer that easy and in any case, there’s now also the small problem of the theory test. But a bit of cash brings knowledge. Or a computer with the correct answers already conveniently ticked. You do have to at least look like you tried however, so turning up to fail first time is obligatory. The magic computer’s only there the second time and you still have to click OK, which is perhaps a sort of selection process to root out those who are really incapable of reading a road sign.
For the practical test everything looks above board; official test centre, test date booked in advance, proof of identity needed and a pile of paperwork to be stamped and signed. But in case he might have had any doubts, the examiner will have been informed by your private instructor how good you really are at driving.
So it would not be entirely fair to jump to conclusions and correlate the number of deaths from alcohol (more on that another time) with the number of road deaths; even if you do crash whilst drunk, bets are on you didn’t really know how to drive in the first place.