Why Russian pedestrians warily step into crosswalks

MOSCOW, Russia — When Viktoria Chumirina was hit by a car in southern Russia five years ago, she went into immediate shock.

Lying on the asphalt of a pedestrian crossing, her left side bruised and pained, she wondered what had happened. The car, it seemed, had come out of nowhere. Her companion would later tell her that the driver had turned a corner and stepped on the gas. Perhaps he didn’t notice the red light, busy as he was speaking to someone in the backseat.

“I will never forget what happened to me,” Chumirina, a language teacher at Moscow State University, said recently. “Not that long ago, I was nearly knocked down [again] — they saw us and still accelerated. The last thing I remember is grabbing my friend and running.”

Russia boasts some of the world’s most dangerous roads. Chumirina, in her mid-30s, was one of the lucky ones, surviving with minor injuries, though her left leg hurts to this day.

Many are less fortunate. Reports of deadly accidents fill news reports daily. According to official statistics, 30,000 people died on Russia’s roads last year. That’s 82 people a day. And those are official statistics, little trusted in Russia.

The government has, finally, recognized the problem.

“We have worked to decrease the number of victims,” said Viktor Kiryanov, the head of Russia’s traffic police, noting the official 2004 mortality rate on the country’s roads stood at 35,000. “We are also decreasing the number of dead. Already, today, we have decreased it by 13 percent for the first nine months of [2009].”

“This is a wonderful number that shows government measures are working and have saved thousands of lives,” Kiryanov said.

Calling a death rate that still numbers in the tens of thousands a “wonderful number” is a pretty crass thing, especially given the setting. Kiryanov was speaking at the first ever global road safety summit, a gathering of over 70 ministers convened by the Make Roads Safe campaign. Russia had lobbied hard to host the event and, inexplicably, won. Kiryanov — who appeared in his full general's uniform alongside World Bank analysts, actress and activist Michelle Yeoh, and former NATO secretary general and campaign chairman Lord Robertson — seemed to interpret Russia’s hosting of the conference as vindication of its own record in road safety.

Ask any Russian, and that record is abysmal.

A 2007 poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, a Russian pollster, found that just 8 percent of Russians thought the road safety situation in their towns was “good,” while 46 percent said it was “bad” (37 percent said it was “satisfactory”). More disturbing is that 6 percent of respondents said drivers never broke traffic rules, 64 percent said they did so often and 18 percent said they did so rarely.

The government has instituted a number of measures in a bid to punish drivers into being more careful. As of 2009, a new law fined drivers 500 rubles ($16) for failing to wear their seatbelts. Adherence to the law spread with surprising quickness, although many drivers simply buckle up when a traffic cop is in sight, or lay the strap across their bodies without actually buckling. It is not uncommon for a cab driver to question a passenger who takes the initiative to buckle, taking the move as an insult to the quality of his driving or the safety provided by his car.

It has also instituted measures to protect pedestrians, often viewed as lower forms of life by drivers in a country where a car is still seen very much as a status symbol. The fine appears to conform to that, with drivers forced to hand over 300 rubles ($9.80) if they are caught failing to stop at a pedestrian crossing.

For many Russians, this is no small change. And the fines can run much higher for offenses considered more serious: The law says there is a zero tolerance policy for drunk driving, and official fines run from 20,000 rubles ($655) and license confiscation.

The problem is, as ever, corruption. Russia’s ubiquitous traffic police are among the least trusted officials in the country (a 2008 poll by the Public Opinion Foundation found that they were trusted by 23 percent of respondents, and mistrusted by 51 percent). They regularly line the roads in Moscow, and their numbers invariably increase around holidays — it is widely understood that more bribes need to be taken then in order to buy gifts.

Kiryanov said he acknowledged that corruption existed, but the problem wasn’t the traffic police. “Corruption and bribes on the roads, unfortunately, exist and we are fighting this. But we also tell those who are subject to it that they don’t have to give bribes — then these conflict situations wouldn’t exist,” he said. Tell that to someone who has been stopped by the traffic police. It’s well known that if you have no cash on you, they will drive you to an ATM so you can swiftly pay the bribe.

What’s more, top officials and their children, their cars adorned with a flashing blue light that allows them to cast aside traffic rules, are often the very ones involved in car accidents, their crimes never brought to court. That’s why one of the top stories in Russia at the end of 2009 was about a massive car crash in Switzerland caused by the son of one of Russia’s richest men. While racing a Lamborghini against three of his friends on the road from Geneva to Lausanne, the young man hit another car, gravely injuring its elderly driver. Many Russians hope that at least in Switzerland justice will be done.

Viktoria Chumirina didn’t press charges after her own accident. The driver of the car that hit her encouraged her, over and over again, not to. His profession? Police officer.