Don't Get Your Kicks on the E-18

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St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko says she wants to build a modern freeway between St. Petersburg and Moscow that will make driving between the two capitals a lot easier and safer.

This sounds like a good idea considering that the annual death toll on Russian roads is not that different to the casualties from a moderately sized war: Thirty-five thousand people lost their lives in car accidents in 2003.

Some will say the death toll is not exceptional for such a large country, especially compared to the United States, where the figure is approximately 40,000.

But when you compare the number of cars in the United States and Russia, the figures start to look pretty awful. There are 30 million vehicles in Russia and about 220 million in the United States.

Russians do not drive according to a set of road rules, but rather are guided by the principle that nobody wants to get hit. And because individual drivers choose unpredictable ways to avoid crashes, often the exact opposite happens.

An indication of this is the outrageous number of memorials to people killed along the major highways throughout the country. They are installed under tree trunks -- the last thing thousands of Russian drivers see.

When I drove from Denver to Los Angeles two years ago, it was a great 22-hour trip with a cup of coffee and good music playing. I enjoyed the view out of the front window and was continually impressed by the nature around me, whether it was the sunrise over the Grand Canyon or a thunderstorm in the Nevada Desert. It was all beautiful.

When I was in the front seat of a minivan on my way back from Helsinki last weekend I was thinking it would be a lot safer to fly to Mars than to drive in the night along the highway between Vyborg and St. Petersburg.

"I am scared myself," my driver said when he heard me cursing. At that moment, the minivan had squeezed through the gap between a huge freight truck speeding in the opposite direction and a Lada car parked on the right side of the road with no reflectors or identifying lights on, on a pitch-black night.

The E-18 highway, which links St. Petersburg with the European Union and is described by drivers as one of the best in Russia, is one of the worst in Europe. There are many parts of it that more or less pass muster in terms of having an even road surface, but the road markings are barely visible at night, making driving a real danger.

Most of the ring road around Vyborg was completed a couple of years ago, but it is already covered in holes and cracks and looks as if a division of tanks rolled over it in the winter. Even though the ring road was built with the intention of creating a highway up to European standards, I had no sense that the border with the EU was just 30 kilometers away.

Before 2006, City Hall is to spend 23.7 billion rubles ($817 million) more to complete the eastern part of the ring road around St. Petersburg, which will finally relieve the city center of huge freight trucks. While doing that, both the St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region governments should pay attention to basic safety along major highways in their regions. It wouldn't take billions of rubles to put clear markings on the roads and fix the holes, but the effect would be quite noticeable.

It might not do much to change the way people drive, but it would surely reduce the devastating number of car crash victims.

Vladimir Kovalyov is a staff reporter for The St. Petersburg Times.