Drivers Targeted Over Speeding, Cell Phones

Inveterate leadfoots and motorists who like to dial and drive might have to change their habits soon or risk heftier fines for reckless driving.

The State Duma on Friday passed in a third and final reading a bill that would increase sixfold fines for excessive speeding and talking on a cell phone behind the wheel without a hands-free device.

Under the new regulations, anyone driving 60 kilometers or more above the speed limit can be fined 2,000 to 2,500 rubles ($80 to $100) and risk losing his license for up to six months. Currently the law stipulates fines of 300 to 500 rubles for the same violation and a maximum of four months without a license. The bill would also raise fines for lesser speeding offenses.

Talking on a cell phone while driving without using a hands-free device could lead to a 300 ruble fine, up from the current 50 ruble fine. Fines for not wearing a seat belt -- the rule rather than the exception in Russia -- would be increased from 100 to 500 rubles.

Driving without a license would cost drivers up to 5,000 rubles, and if the driver is drunk, he could face up to 15 days in jail.

The bill comes after comments by President Vladimir Putin over the past two years demanding that the government take steps to lower the number of driving deaths from the current 35,000 per year.

"We hope the proposed changes will allow us to make serious guarantees about traffic safety," said Vladimir Pligin, who chairs the State Duma's Constitution and State Affairs Committee, Interfax reported.

More than 10,000 people died in traffic accidents from January through May, up 14 percent from the same period last year, according to Interior Ministry statistics. Viktor Kiryanov, head of the ministry's road safety department, said last month that speeding was the leading cause of accidents.

The bill will now be sent for consideration in the Federation Council. If approved there, it will be sent to Putin to be signed into law.

Motorists' rights groups say curbing traffic deaths requires a multipronged approach that includes reforming the traffic police, better roads and faster ambulances, adding that higher fines would simply mean bigger bribes for police.

Traffic cops are feared and hated across the country by even law-abiding drivers for their notorious practice of extorting bribes.

Vyacheslav Lysakov, head of the group Freedom of Choice, said the version of the bill passed Friday is more lenient than the original draft, which included a steep increase in fines for motorists who do not stop for traffic police.

"We were able to convince the State Duma that raising these fines would lead to corruption and crime," said Lysakov, who helped draft the bill. "A traffic cop could accuse any driver of the slightest infraction. Afraid of losing their licenses, drivers would just pay bribes."

The new regulations also legalize the use of stationary cameras to monitor traffic. If a camera catches drivers violating traffic laws, their sentences could be decided without their participation, RIA-Novosti reported.

Traffic police officials at the Interior Ministry and city police headquarters could not be reached for comment Friday.

n Moscow motorists will soon be able to pay traffic fines at automated teller machines across the city, Izvestia reported Friday.

Already dubbed the "Fine-O-Mat" by Muscovites, the first machine opened Thursday on Malaya Pirogovskaya Ulitsa, near the Sportivnaya metro station in southwest Moscow, Izvestia reported. Eleven such stations will be opened this week across the city, the newspaper said.