The Quick and the Dead: A Guide to Moscow Driving Etiquette
Text and photos Ross Hunter
Who needs the Trans-Siberian or dogsledding in Chukotka? For a real adventure, explore wildest Moscow. Just venture out onto the city streets to enjoy life on the edge. If you agree with Robert Louis Stevenson that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” then your urban adventure is ready and waiting. Moscow’s streets are perfectly safe. Keep telling yourself this. If you want to drive here but have not yet taken the plunge, the following tips are for you. Though I consider myself a spirited driver, here I opt to observe rather than join in the fun. Like bullfighting, driving in Moscow is best enjoyed as spectator sport.
With only 245 reported accidents a day, Moscow drivers must be good. They know they are the best and will prove it before you can say bystra (hurry up). They are instinctive strategists and brilliant judges of space, down to the millimeter. The paint on Russian cars is infinitesimally thin so as to free up additional road space.
Personal Space (respect for)
This concept does not apply to those travelling on foot or public transport, where smoke – both fresh and stale – as well as garlic and high-octane vapors are for sharing. However, in the car, it’s a different story. Since Moscow housing is high-density and cramped (or “surprisingly spacious” to readers who work in real estate), a young man’s identity is derived umbilically from his steel steed. Encroach on this space at your peril. Also, passengers may compliment the driver on his agility and derring-do but should never question his choice of radio station, DVD or swaying iconography that obstructs the view of the road. Eating, texting, “socializing,” sleeping and reading are all acceptable diversions when behind the wheel.
Traffic Signals are Aspirational
White lines offer a general guide to preferred direction (plus or minus 180 degrees) but are not in any sense prescriptive. Maximize tarmac usage by squeezing in an additional lane, but slow to 80 kilometers per hour before doing so. Crosswalks are reserved for the first car in any given lane. A flashing traffic light is an invitation for immediate acceleration. A green man shows when pedestrians are “in play,” but do not flinch: cars will avoid hitting you, as the expense of auto repair and encounters with the traffic police exceed the glory of pedestrian-colored trophy stains on the hood.
Choosing Your Chariot
The brand is what matters most for expats and New Russians. For ordinary citizens, having a ride is essential, but type, size and age are not. The only must is to have your own space capsule. The state of the engine, exhaust system (if existent) and windshield matter little. Smoked glass, bug deflectors and protruding airfoils, irrespective of whether the car is front- or rear-wheel drive, are de rigueur. As a rough guide, smoke output from the tailpipe should be less than that from the fractionally ajar “windows.” Side mirrors are superfluous. All drivers expect to be faster than anyone else, so needless protrusions may be trimmed, folded or amputated. If the engine works, it must be kept running, at all times.
Pessimistic Muscovites rely on studded tires throughout the summer, but, being optimists too, change for treadless slicks just before the first snowfall. For foreigners, corporate diktat requires that valuable kidnap targets not travel by metro but in three-ton anthracite behemoths that scream “here’s the money!” Local minigarchs have similar polychromatically challenged vehicles, distinguished by the rooftop blue light and Range Rover escort(s) in a matching jet hue. Avoid.
Occasionally, density exceeds the optimal level. Special Driving Measures are initiated by at least 63% of drivers signalling assent with their horns. A four-lane road crammed with upwards of seven queues of static traffic indicates over-spill onto adjacent pavement. It is polite to defer to moving streetcars, and considered unsporting to swerve around stationary ones while passengers are disembarking. Adjoining residential areas have an entertaining selection of rat-run short cuts, where normal rules of engagement – direction of traffic flow, which side of the road to drive on, curb avoidance, etc. – are inoperative.
Although the river looks solid in winter, using it as a conduit for over-flow traffic is not recommended. High antifreeze concentrations in the water mean the ice is more fragile than it looks. It is not traffic-free by accident. In extremis, a swift U-turn across the oncoming lanes allows unimpeded progress toward the destination, albeit in reverse. Try not to distract the driver while he is executing this maneuver. If in the front seat, simply keep staring ahead. Silent prayer is permissible.
Ross Hunter is a Moscow-based educator and writer.