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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Killing the Marshrutka Will Spare Many Lives

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The St. Petersburg government's plan to cut many private transportation routes and replace hundreds of dangerous fixed-route taxis, or marshrutki, with bigger and more comfortable buses seems like the light at the end of the tunnel.

The marshrutka in recent years has earned a reputation as a killer van. This reputation is often linked to one particular type of vehicle, the Gazel produced at the Gorky Auto Plant, which are widely used by private transport companies in CIS cities.

The Gazel is an example of the artistry of post-Soviet engineering. I remember seeing one of the latest models a couple of years ago and deciding the engineers who designed it must have been drunk. Gazels, for some unknown reason, have door handles on the left side of the door. And sometimes the doors just fall off, as the driver looks on sadly and passengers make unpleasant remarks.

The Moscow city government recently started inspections of Gazels across the capital. The results stunned me. In two days in the first week of April, 564 out of the 5,366 Gazels in Moscow were deemed unroadworthy. Eighteen minivans were being driven with broken steering wheels, seven had brakes that did not work, 42 had broken wheels, the headlights on 180 were not working, 45 cars had broken door locks, 90 did not have necessary equipment such as fire extinguishers or first aid kits, and 64 had been modified so they could carry more passengers without taking safety into account. A total of 1,888 drivers broke traffic rules, including 22 that drove on the wrong side of the road. One driver was drunk.

This data is for only two days of the operation, which was scheduled to last until mid-April. The results have not been released yet, but I would not be surprised to see even more outrageous numbers when they are. I wish a similar operation would be mounted in St. Petersburg.

With statistics like these, it's no surprise that people are killed almost every week in accidents involving Gazels. A big question mark also hangs over the skills of marshrutka drivers. Judging by how they drive, you would think they took only one lesson to get their drivers license. It was probably the one about how to start the car.

In the end, the introduction of new, bigger buses in St. Petersburg is just the first step toward solving the problem. To make private transportation in St. Petersburg safer and more comfortable, City Hall should introduce strict rules for servicing vehicles and training drivers. If this isn't done, the number of victims dying in traffic accidents will continue to grow each year.

Vladimir Kovalev is a Staff Writer at The St. Petersburg Times.