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Why Russian pedestrians warily step into crosswalks

30,000 people died on Russia's roads last year, but the government claims it is improving road safety.

A luxury car is reflected in the side mirror of a car in Moscow on Sept. 11, 2007. Ducking and weaving as they struggle to make progress in Moscow's dense traffic, hulking black SUVs, Ferrari sports cars and battered old Ladas battle for space. Just 20 years ago, there was a fraction of today's traffic on the city's gray roads and, apart from diplomatic imports, all cars were Soviet models like Zhigulis and Volgas. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

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.