Driving in Russia is on the right side of the road. Even though the driving laws are strict and similar to those in the West, drivers often don't obey them and police enforce them in strange ways. Russian drivers have a bad reputation. There is no such thing as rude, aggressive and belligerent drivers. Such drivers are considered the norm. The term "Silver Knights" is used to describe drivers who are patient and considerate. Few travelers drive on their own, especially since the cost of a car and driver isn't much more than a car by itself. If you do drive, drive defensively.

Keep in mind also that the road signs are often only in Cyrillic and not in English; and the distances and speeds are measured in kilometers not miles. It is a good idea to bring maps with places labeled in both English and Cyrillic. That way you can figure out where you are and read road signs.

Gasoline is fairly cheap but gas stations are few and far between and often don't have fuel. Gas is generally of lower quality than what Western cars are used to and unleaded used to be hard to get. If your purchase gas, make sure to get the highest octane possible and make sure diesel fuel isn't put in your car. At gas stations you generally pay first and pump. If a pump nozzle is lying in the ground that generally means the pump is empty. If you can't find an open gas station you can often buy gasoline in bottles or plastic tanks from roadside vendors.

Traffic is generally not a problem outside the cities. On the main roads, with the exception of those around Moscow, the traffic is generally pretty light. Trucks are generally smaller and less threatening than their American counterparts. Roads and vehicles are often poorly maintained. Inclement weather and a lack of routine maintenance of both roads and vehicles make road conditions highly variable. Make sure your car has a spare tire, jack, spare battery water, an extra fan belt and an emergency triangle. There are not so many mechanics, service stations and gas stations on the roads in Siberia.

For information on traffic, road and driving conditions in a number countries check the website for the Potomac- Maryland-based Association for Safe International Road Travel: 11769 Gainsborough Road, Potomac MD 20854, USA Phone: (301) 983-5252; Fax:(301) 983-3663; Website:www.asirt.org; E-mail: asirt@asirt.org.

Russian Driver Behavior

Drivers and passengers are required to wear seat belts and there are strict drinking-and-driving laws. Don't leave valuables in the car. Car break-ins occur. In the old days people removed their windshield wipers when they parked their car because many people stole them. People don't do that so much any more.

Russian driver don't like to use their headlights or signal indicators. They pass, both on the inside and outside. On country roads people often pass on the inside. The narrow lane becomes the slow land and the shoulder and ditch become the passing lane.

According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel: “Be prepared to stop immediately when a traffic light turns to amber, as residents tend to anticipate the green light. Drivers frequently pass on the right, tailgate, cross solid lines or make illegal U-turns. They often fail to use turn signals, yield right of way, slow down to let others pass or dim high beams for oncoming traffic. Few people use seat belts. Some drivers swerve dangerously from lane to lane on wide boulevards, ignoring painted lanes and other drivers’ signaled intentions. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

“Drivers frequently disobey the speed limit and lane markings and run red lights. Drivers may drive while under the influence of alcohol or drive in the wrong lane, against oncoming traffic. About 22 percent of drivers in larger cities and 32 percent of drivers in smaller cities fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.Safe pedestrian walkways are often lacking. Pedestrians increase road crash risk by failing to obey traffic regulations, crossing without looking for oncoming traffic, walking out between cars to cross and underestimating traffic speed.” |=|

Automobile Accidents in Russia

It is estimated that about 30,000 Russians a year die in auto accidents. This is quite a lot considering that there are relatively not so many cars. There are over 800 deaths and 7,500 injuries a year in Moscow, where there are about 20 serious accidents every day. A high number involve pedestrians. Expenses related to road crashes consume about 2.5 percent of Russia’s GDP.

According to ASIRT: Road crashes are common. Both drivers and pedestrians must exercise extreme caution. There are 24.6 fatalities per 100,000 population in Russia, compared to 14.6 in the U.S., 10.1 in France and 5.9 in Sweden. There are 14 road fatalities per 10,000 motor vehicles, compared to 2.0 in the U.S. and 1.0 in the U.K. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

Common factors in road crashes include speeding, driving irresponsibly, driving under the influence of alcohol, failure to wear seatbelts and inadequate law enforcement. Inadequate infrastructure is also contributes to road crashes. Many drivers have never passed drivers’ tests. Some residents drive with no driver’s license or buy a driver’s license from officials. Driver training is inadequate. A non-driver can purchase a driver's license for $500, which partly explains why there are so many traffic accidents.

“On Sakhalin island, the majority of road crashes are car-pedestrian crashes, head-on or rear-end crashes or rollover crashes. Drivers violating traffic law is a factor in over 75 percent of road crashes; 33 percent were speeding; 10 percent were driving on the wrong side of the road. 20 percent were driving under the influence of alcohol; 25 percent lacked a driver’s license. |=|

Driving in the Communist Era

Good paved roads connected cities. The roads connecting rural towns and villages are often in poor condition. As a rule the farther you went off the beaten path bumpier and narrower the roads got. Horse carts, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, pigs, donkeys, people with wheelbarrows and oxcarts far outnumber motorized vehicles.

Driving was a pleasure because the roads were lightly traveled and easy to navigate because so few people owned cars and drivers tended to be law-abiding and careful. Drivers rarely went through red lights and sometimes people were fined for driving dirty cars. Pot holes were actually seen as sign as sign of progress. When there was no traffic, the roads were in almost perfect conditions.

The traffic was so light on many road that motorists could drive on either side of the road. In some places it was possible to drive for hours on a major road during the middle of the day and not see another car.

In the Soviet-era foreign drivers were required to stick to an itinerary worked out before they arrived. These rules have generally been relaxed but in some places you still might encounter them. Generally, though, you are free to drive wherever you want.

Driving Laws in Russia

Speed limits: Urban areas: 60 km/h (37 mph); Rural areas: 90 km/h (55 mph); Motorways: 100 km/h (62 mph). Foreign visitors holding a driver’s license for less than 2 years are not permitted to exceed 70 km/h. The maximum blood alcohol content level has been raised from zero to 0.03. Drivers whose blood alcohol content exceeds 0.03 may be detained until sober. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT): “Roundabout crossings are marked with a special sign (blue plate with 3 white circled arrows) which introduces a general rule: vehicles which pull into a roundabout have the right of way (this is opposite to the European practise and dangerous for non- residents). Still if certain directions are mainstream this rule is often overwritten by priority signs which are put on the same pile below the abovementioned road sign. |=|

“A flashing green light means the light is about to turn yellow and then red. A flashing yellow light means there are no traffic lights at the upcoming intersection. In roundabouts, the car on the right has the right of way, even if you are already in the circle. Using a hand-held cellular phone while driving is illegal. Cellular phones with earpieces and handless microphones are permitted. A power of attorney (preferably notarized) is required in order to drive someone else’s vehicle. Be sure your car insurance covers traveling in European Russia and Asian-Russia when going to both regions.” |=|

“Russia has several closed cities and regions. Attempting to enter these areas without prior authorization can result in arrest, fines, and/or deportation. List all areas to be visited on your visa application. Register with authorities at each destination upon arrival. Check with your sponsor, hotel or the Russian Federal Migration Service before traveling to unfamiliar cities and towns.

Traffic Police in Russia

The traffic police in Russian are known as the GAI or GIBDD. According to ASIRT: “The State Automobile Inspectorate (GIBDD) is authorized to stop cars and issue immediate fines. If drivers fail to stop, officers have the authority to shoot at your car. There is a permanent GIBDD checkpoint at the border of every Russian city and many Russian towns. GIBDD officers sometimes intimidate foreigners. If you want to dispute the charges, take the matter to the head of the local GIBDD station. Criminals sometimes pose as GIBDD officers. If an officer has a gun, comply with his requests, but get his badge number and report the incident to the GIBDD in the next town. Complaints generally are treated with concern. Inspection of cars is often lax. Drivers may be pulled over at night on suspicion of driving while under the influence just because they are on the road. In July 2008, federal law approved using traffic cameras to identify law violations and reduce crime. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

“Foreigners are often victims of harassment or extortion by police and other officials. Probable cause is not required for police to stop, question or detain people.If stopped, record officer’s name, badge number and patrol car number, unless it seems unsafe to do so. Recording where the stop occurred may help authorities identify the perpetrators. Authorities are concerned about such incidents and cooperate with investigations of these cases. Report the incident to the U.S. Embassy or nearest Consulate General. |=|

“Some business activities, considered normal in western nations, are illegal or raise suspicion of espionage in Russia. Any commercial activity involving Russian military-industrial enterprises, such as research institutes, production facilities, design bureaus and other high level, government-related technology groups are subject to investigation.

Corruption and Driving in Russia

Traffic police (the GAI) are omnipresent and very corrupt. They frequently set up speed traps on highways and stop vehicles for perceived infractions by waving them over with a striped stick. The GAI has the right to pull cars overs for anything the want and they are allowed to shoot at vehicles that don't stop. Usually $3 or $4 is enough to settle matters with the traffic police. Sometimes drivers are stopped several times in one day. GAI impostors are a problem in some places.

The GAI (pronounced "gaiyee") traffic police are notorious for routinely pulling cars aside for small infractions and demanding a bribe of about $12. A speeding ticket can be erased for as little as $2. Getting out of a drunk driving charge costs a little more: about $100. Hard working traffic police can earn enough in one year to buy a Russian car, enough in three years to buy a foreign car. In five years they can buy an apartment.

A number of jokes about the GAI circulate around Russia. In one joke a police officer asks his boss for raise because his wife is pregnant. His boss says there is no money but says he can help another way by lending the policemen a 40kph road sign that for a week. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1999]

According to experts, the main causes of corruption are insufficient funding to train and equip personnel and pay them adequate wages, poor work discipline, lack of accountability, and fear of reprisals from organized criminals. Rather than being outraged by police corruption many Russians express sympathy for the police because they are paid so little. One woman told the New York Times, "Nobody gets paid enough so everyone must make money on the side through bribes or payoffs of one kind or another. People create their own rules, which actually make more sense than those that government tries to impose."

A non-driver can purchase a driver's license for $500, which partly explains why there are so many traffic accidents. One 20-year-old student told the Los Angeles Times she paid a $200 bribe to a driving inspector because she figured it was cheaper to pay the bribe than take her driving course again. The inspector told her drive 20 meters and after she did that he told her she could pick up her license next week. "During the test," she said, "I was really shocked when I saw half the people could hardly start the car. I got really scared when I realized how many bad drivers were on the roads in Russia. Most of the never have opened a book of traffic rules.”

According to ASIRT: “Roadside checkpoints are commonplace. Police randomly stop vehicles to check documents. Always carry originals or photocopies of passports and registered visas. Failing to have them can result in detention and/or heavy fines. Most checkpoints are legitimate. However, some traffic police try to impose “fines” on travelers.Few officers are convicted for corrupt practices or accepting bribes. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|] City Driving in Russia

In Moscow and other cities, left hand turns are forbidden. Instead you have to drive to an intersection marked by blue sign with a curved arrow and then make a U-turn. Green and yellow lights often flicker before they change; yellow lights are very short; people sometimes drive on the sidewalks and use their parking lights instead of headlights when driving at night.

Avoid driving during the morning and evening rush hours. Trams and trolleybuses have the right of way over cars, and cars have the right of way over pedestrians. If a street car stops and open its doors, cars are required to stop. In Moscow, an old street once caved into a hole created by burst steam pipes, boiling to death several unlucky people who fell in.

Margaret Shapiro wrote in the Washington Post in 1994: "Intersections are overrun from all directions with no one willing to give way. Red lights are regularly ignored, and sidewalks are often as congested with traffic as the road they abut. Even playgrounds become driving zones. Rather than be delayed by a particularly bad traffic jam, many drivers simply take over oncoming lanes, flashing their headlights aggressively and forcing oncoming traffic to a snarl."

Russian drivers usually don’t stop at cross walks. Many drivers delight in speeding up and watch pedestrians scurry to safety. Gangster flaunt the rules and drive in any lane they want and throw money at police who try to stop them. One Moscow motorist told the New York Times, "If one learns to drive in Moscow, there isn't any other city on the world in which to be scared."

According to ASIRT: “Many roads are poorly maintained. One-way streets sometimes make getting around difficult. Many roads are one-way or do not permit left-hand turns. Navigating may be difficult in some cities.Some drivers swerve dangerously from lane to lane on wide boulevards, ignoring painted lanes and other drivers’ signaled intentions. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

“It is easy to get lost when entering or leaving a city. Many street names have been changed from their former Soviet names, but residents often still use the old names. Signs with the new names have not always been erected and older maps still carry former names. Traffic lights often are obscured, and sign posts are inadequate. Tram drivers may drive recklessly. Be alert for tram lines that have buckled the road surface. Be alert for trolleybuses pulling out into traffic from a stop. Trolleybuses and public buses have right of way when pulling out from stops in residential areas. Trolleybus drivers are required to make sure that other drivers yield right of way to him and that his maneuver is safe.” |=|

City Parking in Russia

Parking is sometimes a problem in the cities. There are often enough parking spaces on the streets but parking on the street leaves your car vulnerable to break ins. Many people park in expensive parking garages for security reasons. Some hotels provide secure parking lots. And then there are people who just park wherever they want. "Because there are hardly any parking lots in Moscow," Shapiro wrote, "driver abandon their cars wherever it is convenient—even if it blocks the road, an intersection or a driveway. The city owns just 12 tow trucks, and they basically work all day on one stretch of a single major street."

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “A few years ago, Moscow tried to institute paid parking in the city center. It was odd, after all, that one of the most expensive cities in the world should let you park for free. The authorities deployed men in orange vests to accept payment for parking on the street. Very quickly, fake parking men appeared, also in orange vests, and then the press reported that the real parking men were delivering only a portion of the parking revenues to the city. In the end, Mayor Luzhkov gave in to public pressure and cancelled paid parking on the city’s streets. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker , August 2, 2010 ]

“Moscow is now a riot of parking. Cars park in crosswalks, on traffic islands, in many of the quiet courtyards of the city center, in historic squares” and “things are getting worse. Throughout the city are signs indicating no-parking zones, but the rules are only occasionally enforced, and the fines are paltry. As a result, the Moscow pedestrian spends a lot of time scrambling over cars, or around them, sometimes being forced out into the street, even, because the cars have climbed onto the sidewalk.”

Traffic in St Petersburg

On the traffic situation in St. Petersburg, ASIRT reported: The city is a transport hub between Russia and Eastern and Western Europe, Baltic and Nordic countries. The road, rail and air transport network is well developed. Traffic jams are common on main roads, especially where they enter the city. Downtown areas and city bridges tend to be congested, especially on weekends. Heavy goods vehicles account for about 10 percent of traffic. The city is located on 42 islands at an estuary of the River Neva on the Gulf of Finland. There are numerous canals and bridges. Traffic backups are common near main bridges. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

“Drivers may drive recklessly. Driving is difficult due to poor road conditions and erratic signage. Main streets are heavily traveled. Rapid growth in vehicle ownership further increases congestion. Secondary streets are often narrow and have parking on both sides. Traffic jams are common during rush hours. There is a high volume of through-traffic. In winter, heavy snows may increase traffic congestion. Most public transportation services close at night.” |=|

Rural Driving in Russia

Many of the roads in the wilderness, mountains, forests and rural areas are tracks. Some tracks are surprising hard and smooth. Generally, though, they are bumpy and in poor condition. After heavy rains or during the spring thaw from April until June they often become impassable. In rural areas, In rural areas, drivers have to deal with quagmires, thick sticky mud, deep ruts, big rocks, dust, and washed out surfaces. Also watch out for cows, moose, elks and other animals which often run across the road without warning.

Make sure your car has a spare tire, jack, spare battery water, extra gasoline and water, an extra fan belt, a winch, wooden planks, an air pump, spare parts and tires, an ax, extra fuel and oil, a first aid kit, enough food and water to last an emergency, and an emergency triangle. Distances off road in Russia are deceptive. Traffic is slowed by ruts, potholes and animals, and it is not unusual for journey of a 100 miles to take four or five hours. A global positioning System (GPS) is useful for figuring out where you are and avoiding getting lost if you are driving in the wilderness.

According to ASIRT: “Road conditions may be poor outside major cities. Roads are poorly maintained. Many roads are unpaved. Freely wandering livestock may cross the road anytime of the day. Be alert for deep potholes. When wooden barricades are not available, deeper potholes may be marked with a pile of stones or tree branches. Permafrost is common in many areas of Siberia. Some roads may be open in winter, but closed after spring thaw. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

“Traveling at night is not recommended, especially outside of major cities. Never park near a road and sleep in your vehicle. Factors that increase road risk at night: Cars often lack brake lights and may have only one headlight. Drivers rarely turn on headlights until it is very dark. Bicycles seldom have reflectors or lights. Construction sites and stranded vehicles are often unmarked. Drivers driving while under the influence of alcohol. The risk of robbery is higher at night, especially if you are traveling alone. |=|

“In spring, roads can be difficult to navigate due to heavy mud during spring thaws and autumn rains. During these seasons, unpaved roads generally are impassible. In rural areas, roads can be closed for up to a month. In Siberia and some parts of European Russia, spring floods and summer or autumn forest fires may occur. On Sakhalin Island, winter is severe and lasts about 6 months. Road crash rates are highest in summer. In Moscow and the surrounding area, winter is long and severe. Snow and ice are prevalent from October to March. Rainfall peaks during July and August. In the Caucasus Mountains, heavy rain and mudslides often wash away bridges and block roads and tunnels. In the Murmansk region, travel is more difficult on most dirt and crushed-stone/gravel paved roads in autumn and spring. The spring “bad road” season begins when the snow starts to melt (mid-April or late May to mid-June).

Driving in Siberia and the Russian Far East

On driving in Siberia, ASIRT reports: “Driving regulations are the same as in European Russia. Driving conditions are very different than in the European areas of Russia. Distances between cities often are vast. Traveling from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk is about the same distance as London to Cairo. Local roads tend to be unpaved, very rough and full of potholes. Finding gas or spare parts can be difficult. Harsh weather conditions increase the cost of road construction. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

“Some roads are winter roads only and are impassible when the ground thaws. Winter roads are not indicated on maps. Ask residents about year-round routes. Often no bridges are available for crossing the rivers; crossing is only possible where trucks ford the river. Existing bridges are not well maintained, and some are not safe to cross. Erosion sometimes creates a large gap between the road surface and bridge surface.Transcontinental highway: A narrow, two-lane road with shoulders that are seldom paved and generally no lane markings. Bicycles and horse-drawn carts share the road with motorized vehicles. Extremely large potholes, wandering livestock, sections of unpaved road, and jagged rocks scattered on the road surface make driving difficult and can cause vehicle damage. |=|

“In the Altay Mountains, Khakassia and Tuva, and Ussuriland, populated areas are compact; the road system is well developed within and near cities. Distances between villages and towns are somewhat less than in other regions. Rental cars are available in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, from hotels with service bureaus, or from Intourist. Bus transport generally is limited to suburban routes, local links and city-to-airport links. Distances between cities are too great, and the roads are either lacking or too poor to make bus service practical.

On Sakhalin Island: The road network is inadequate to handle the rapid growth in population and number of vehicles that occurred after discovery of oil and gas deposits in 2001. From 2000 to 2004, road crash fatalities increased 13 percent, while injuries increased 45 percent. In 2004, there were 66 road fatalities per 10,000 vehicles and 277 fatalities per 100,000 population. An intensive road safety campaign is reducing road fatalities and injuries on Sakhalin Island. The campaign includes education and mass media campaigns, tougher laws and increased penalties for driving violations. Many vehicles are in poor condition. About 50 percent of vehicles are over 10 years old. Many vehicles are imported from Japan and have the steering wheel on the right. Only 75 percent of roads have road signs. 65 percent of existing signs do not meet federal standards. There are few sidewalks. Road lighting and traffic lights often do not work.

Driving in Northern Russia

According to ASIRT: Key cities where roads are being upgraded are Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Petrozavodsk. Roads in the Russian section are in poor condition. Harsh weather conditions contribute to the difficulty of building and maintaining highways and roads. Distances between cities are great. Road conditions are often much rougher than those typical in western countries. Be alert for stones, well covers and bumpy stretches. Take spare tires, a tire repair kit, a hand pump and a towing service number. Fuel may be difficult to find. Take a spare fuel can; unleaded fuel is not available. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]

In the Murmansk region, most roads in this region are dirt or are paved with crushed stone and gravel. Between Kandalaksha-Murmansk and Apatity- Koashva, the M-18 highway is paved with asphalt or concrete with a crushed stone and gravel base. In the Karelia Republic, most of the road network is in poor condition. Traveling by road is difficult, especially in winter and during rainy seasons. The St. Petersburg-Murmansk Motorway (M18) is the only federal highway in Karelia. There are two other main transport routes: Kochkoma-Kostomuksha- Lutta-Vartius on the Finnish border and Sortavala to Vartsila-Niirala, also on the Finnish border. |=|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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