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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Winning the Game of Chicken on City Roads




On the streets of Moscow, it's one big game of chicken.


Big, new, fast cars zoom by on the right at the speed of sound. Drivers accelerate until their cars are just centimeters behind the next fender and then try to edge around to get just a car or two ahead. Yield signs seem to mean: Give up the right of way ... if you feel like it. Then there's the GAI with those menacing white batons. And potholes the size of elephants. And remarkable traffic.


At least there's blessedly little honking of horns.


Brad May, an American who has been driving in Moscow for three years, thinks he's had the perfect training for Moscow: driving in Boston.


"The Boston drivers are generally considered to be the worst in the United States," said May, a director of the New Russia Small Business Investment Fund.


But there is a method to the road madness. Muscovites behave on the roads the same way as they use the metro, he said.


"When they are going to get on the escalator, instead of a nice, orderly line, everybody crowds up all the way to the front and then has to get eventually back into just two lines for the escalator. People do the same thing at the stop light. If there is a little space, somebody drives all the way up to the right or to the left. They all crowd in at the front. Then, when the light turns green, they all have to get back into two or three lines again," May said.


There are 2.5 million vehicles registered in Moscow, a city of 9 million people, said Alexander Mantsevich, spokesman for Moscow's GAI traffic police, or the State Auto Inspectorate, which has just been renamed GIBDD, or State Inspectorate for Traffic Safety.


"Every year, about 300,000 cars are registered in the city. Some are taken off the books, but it is safe to say, that every year the fleet of motor vehicles increases by 200,000 new cars," Mantsevich said.


Every morning, it seems the engines on every single one of those 2.5 million vehicles are started simultaneously, and they all start out at the same time to create monster trafficjams.


"It takes me hours to get where I want to go," said Basil Wagstaff, a graphic designer who has been driving in Moscow for three years. "I know where I want to go, I can even see where I want to go, but I always have to go so far out of town to do a U-turn."


If Moscow's roads were a computer game, the open manhole covers, cracks, bumps and potholes would be great fun. But trying to get a car fixed after hitting one of those obstacles is not virtual at all.


One of the problems of driving in Moscow is "the way people swerve to avoid potholes, holes on the street or anything else," May said.


"They just expect that they even have the right to swerve into my lane, and I am supposed to allow them to do that. If I honk my horn at them, they generally look at me as if I've done something wrong. And everybody seems to understand that," he said.


One day, the car in front of May suddenly pulled over and stopped when a black cat crossed the road. According to popular belief, a black cat crossing in front of you brings bad luck.


"The driver stopped and waited for me to drive through and break the spell," May said. He did, the superstitious driver pulled in behind him, and the incident was settled.


These challenges keep many foreigners from driving in Moscow.


"I am seized by panic when I am behind the wheel on a Moscow road," said Helen Macmillan, 24, who has driven since age 16 in the United States, but rarely drives in Moscow. "You can never predict how people driving side by side with you will act the next minute," she said.


Summer evenings or weekends are good times to learn to drive here; but beware of the traffic police. In a deserted city, they are especially attentive.


If you are stopped, you will be asked to show the documents confirming your right to drive the car. If you are found to have violated a rule, fines range from 16 rubles to 1,180 rubles ($2.6 to $192).


Officially, the officer should write a ticket and take your driving license. You must first go to a bank to pay the fine and then to a certain GAI office to get back your license. The address of the office should be given in a copy of the protokol, or report, the officer writes on the spot. Usually, the GAI office is near where you were stopped, but sometimes a driver has to go to the office where the officer works.


You have a month to settle the problem -- the officer issues a temporary driving permit, stating what day the license was taken.


Although it is not legal, the officers sometimes take money without writing any tickets.


The way gaishniki, or traffic police officers, collect fines has made them the subject of jokes. In one, an officer comes home, frustrated at being unable to catch any drivers violating the rules. Angry and dissatisfied, he asks his son to show him his report card. "Now, I'll show you!" the officer says when he sees a failing grade in the card. But turning the page, he finds 10 rubles between the pages. The officer sighs with relief: "Thank God, at least at home everything is in order."


Merijn Keur, a Dutchman who has lived in Moscow for 18 months, said he doesn't mind being fined for violations but resents bribing the GAI. For many motorists, however, the alternative -- standing in line at a bank and the GAI offices to collect their license -- is worse.


Sometimes pretending that you don't speak Russian can lighten the discussion with the road officers -- many of them don't like to deal with foreigners.


May said he is usually left in peace after saying, "Ya ne ponedelnik," or "I am not a Monday," which sounds absurd and demonstrates ignorance of Russian.


The new reorganization of traffic police has not only changed their name but is intended to make them more friendly to drivers. Officers can now stop vehicles to check documents only at special permanent posts.


News that's most welcome for Moscow drivers is that the tiring procedure of tekhosmotr, or examination of a car's technical condition, will be required much less frequently -- once per five to 10 years, depending on the age of the car, according to Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin. Previously, it was as frequently as once a year.


Officials also hope the new regulations will reduce bribery.


Time will tell. In the meantime, try to stay calm when you drive, Keur advised. "Look always behind you, look in front of you, use your mirrors."


And as soon as you have a chance, try driving in Boston.