Q: After watching countless videos of bad Russian drivers on YouTube, I’d like to know whether they are required to take driving tests or even need to get a license. These people are crazy behind the wheel.
Vic, of Fairview Heights
A: You’d obviously never know it from those videos, but Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale would have been among the first people in the world required to have a license before they could fire up the ol’ Moskvich to spy on moose and squirrel.
As early as 1900, authorities in St. Petersburg ordered owners of horseless carriages to have one before they got behind the wheel. Nine years later, the Russian Empire took part in the Convention with Respect to the International Circulation of Motor Vehicles, which recognized the need of tests and authorization for international driving. And while Russian licenses at first were generally limited to urban areas, they started to become universal in 1936 when the Stalin administration began to devise standardized driving rules.
As you have seen, though, there is the ideal world, in which laws are followed to a T, and reality, in which licenses can be bought with a bribe and drivers snub their noses at traffic laws. For decades, the latter had been the rule in Russia, leading to a traffic death rate that was nearly two-thirds higher than the United States, according to statistics from the World Health Organization.
But, on a hopeful note, perhaps those YouTube videos you watched may soon become mere curiosities. Since 2007, the number of traffic fatalities has plummeted by 30 percent (more than 10,000 fewer deaths a year) as the country began focusing on a problem that had clearly gotten out of hand. Here’s a brief look at the official requirements along with how the country is trying to make its roads a safer place:
The legal driving age in Russia is 18 for a car and 16 for a motorcycle. Obtaining a license consists of the same three steps you’d follow here, only in slightly different order. First, you’d find a state-approved driving school, where you would practice a given number of hours (usually 50) over a period of two to six months.
Once you accomplish that, you’re ready for your driving test. As of 2016, however, the test became stricter, requiring you to pass at least five exercises as opposed to the three in previous years. These exercises include such skills as reverse entry into a parking space, parallel parking and turns in confined spaces.
But passing the driving test only earns you the right to take the written exam. This test consists of 20 multiple choice questions, and, here again, requirements were toughened last year. You are allowed two mistakes, after which an additional five questions will be added. Unless you answer all five of those correctly, you fail and have to try again another day.
Passing the written test immediately qualifies you for a license, which currently runs about $35 (2,000 rubles). Since 1999, the license is much like the one you carry here — a laminated plastic card with various personal information, allowed driving categories and the always dreaded ID photo.
With all those requirements, you’d think driving would be as safe there as it is here, perhaps more so because of the stereotypically nasty Russian legal authorities. Well, think again. In the past, Russian drivers gained the reputation of being some of the worst you’d ever find.
“There is no such thing as rude, aggressive and belligerent drivers (in Russia),” Jeff Hayes wrote a few years ago at factsanddetails.com. “Such drivers are considered the norm.”
According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel in 2008: “Be prepared to stop immediately when a traffic light turns to amber, as residents tend to anticipate the green light. Drivers frequently pass on the right, tailgate, cross solid lines or make illegal U-turns. They often fail to use turn signals, yield right of way, slow down to let others pass or dim high beams for oncoming traffic. Some drivers swerve dangerously from lane to lane on wide boulevards, ignoring painted lanes and other drivers’ signaled intentions.”
The result was a booming business for funeral homes. In 2007, there were 33,308 traffic deaths in Russia. Yes, the United States had nearly 44,000 the same year, but remember that there are 255 million motor vehicles in the U.S., five times more than the 49 million you find in Russia.
But as I said, some day even the Russians might chuckle at those YouTube videos as they show their kids what used to be. As Public Radio International’s Julia Barton found during a visit in 2014, police now are cracking down, citing drivers even for ignoring seat belt and child car seat rules, the latter carrying a new $115 fine. Road-safety ads are now a regular feature on Russian TV. The result? In 2015, the number of traffic deaths had fallen to 23,114, nearly a third fewer than in 2007.
Moscow driver Vladimir Nagovitsyn told Barton he had seen things improve on Moscow roads over the last few years, but he pointed to another reason for the change.
“Мore people have been abroad,” he said. “They’re not violating the laws over there. You start to drive like they do.”
So don’t forget to set a good example yourself. Boris and Natasha might be watching.
According to WHO, what country has the most traffic deaths per 100,000 population?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Perhaps the question — what famous architect coined the word “carport” — gave away the answer. It was none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, who once said, “A car is not a horse, and it doesn’t need a barn.” So instead of a garage, he designed a carport for his first Usonian home in 1936 in Madison, Wis. The term comes from the French “porte-cochère,” or “covered portal.”