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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Expat Experience

Sometimes it can only happen to a foreigner.
And it does
by Catherine Peters

I had been putting off taking my driving test and buying a car for as long as I could: driving in Moscow is akin to signing a suicide pact. But your hand is forced if you want to avoid the metro. Tourists still come to Moscow and want to take a ride for a few stops, but if you have to ride it every day, together with the commuters, the winos and the babushkas, the metro is no holiday. So I signed up for a two-month driving course. They say that you learn to drive after you have passed your driving test; in Moscow you learn to drive in spite of it.

If you already have a driver’s licence issued in your home country you do not need to take the driving test (see Fact Sheet below) If, however, your first car was a limo or a spouse-driven SUV, and you never got round to getting a driver’s license back home, you will have to endure the driving school. The traffic police web site claims that there are approximately 150 authorized driving schools in Moscow with a price range from $175 to $525 per course. The cost includes lectures, driving lessons with a qualified instructor in a Russian car (no BMWs allowed), a medical examination, and filing the paperwork at the exam board.

The lectures are mandatory and are only in Russian (you can take an interpreter). The car can be a little hard getting used to (no automatic gearbox, no heated seat, no radio). You can’t flunk out of either the lectures or the driving. Before you even think about going to the GIBDD (State Road Traffic Safety Inspectorate) exam venue, your school will make you pass a mock-up test of their own to make sure you do not fail spectacularly at the official exam. They have to keep their percentage success rate, otherwise they can be closed down.

Once you are enrolled at the driving school, the first step is a medical examination. On a set date a doctor comes to your driving school to test your eyesight, reflexes, motive apparatus, etc. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not run any tests to determine whether you might be manic-depressive, suicidal, or criminally insane (although you have to be insane to think about driving in Moscow).

Next you take your mock-up test, and if you succeed you can proceed to take the GIBDD examination. The exam consists of a multiple-choice test (paper and pen or computerized), driving through a special obstacle course, and driving in the street, with a traffic policeman as your co-pilot. 

You will not be surprised to hear that it is common practice to ‘facilitate’ your driving exam by greasing certain palms; otherwise, you can end up retaking the test until you reach retirement age. Some motor schools even make such ‘fundraising’ an official and centralised event the day before the exam. When my best friend went to take her exam, her instructor came in and announced that if everyone taking the test were to put on the table a certain sum then the ride the next day would be as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Bearing this in mind, I sat my exam with two ‘emergency’ 100-dollar bills in my pocket.

I made no mistakes on the multiple-choice (honestly), so we went on to the obstacle course, which is referred to as a ‘ploschadka’ here. The ploschadka is a large fenced-off compound which consists of a bridge and a multitude of bright red poles marking imagined garage entrances, corners, curbs and all the other stuff that stands between you and total supremacy on the road. My inspector was something of a joker and said that if anybody started shooting at us then I should start evasive manouevres.

On the obstacle course you have to be able to complete five exercises:

  1. Climb a hill and stop in the middle of the climb, then start moving forward without rolling backwards and hitting someone in the bumper (of course, this problem never occurs on the road once you buy a car with automatic transmission). 
  2. Make a three-point u-turn in a confined space marked by poles, using rear transmission only once. 
  3. Reverse into an imagined garage door.
  4. Slalom between four or five poles – forward and backwards. 
  5. Accelerate at the speed of a bandit after a bank raid, from a standing start, shifting gears rapidly up to third and then stopping again at a required spot which is marked by a white line (imitates the traffic lights). You have to reach a speed of at least 60 kmh and you can’t stop too abruptly and leave skid marks; if you do, you fail.

If you survive the obstacle course, they load you and the rest of the successful applicants into a bus and take you to the place in the city where the standard street driving test is to take place. The itinerary is no mystery to anyone involved and it has not changed for years, so you and your instructor from the driving school have plenty of time to study its every hole and bump beforehand. The main hazard is the other, qualified, drivers who, of course, are not taking their test and are not at all concerned with traffic safety or with sticking to the rules. You really have to concentrate hard to follow the police inspector’s instructions, abide by the traffic rules, and keep your common sense and survival instincts intact at the same time.

The first ‘instruction’ I received from the police inspector, however, was totally unrelated to the itinerary. “Got any chewing gum? I’ve got a lousy hangover and my mouth tastes like sawdust.” I asked him if he wanted to drop by the supermarket and buy a beer – hair of the dog, and all that. He turned down the offer, which was just as well given what happened next…

As I was finishing the first leg of the designated itinerary, a bus cut in on me and stopped to pick up some people. While I was trying to determine whether the driver was at fault, or whether I should have slowed down and given way to him earlier, my examiner offered me his professional advice: “Stay behind till he gathers speed again and cut in on the bastard – give him a taste of his own medicine!” Good law-abiding expat that I am, I told him I couldn’t, whereupon he just grabbed the wheel, told me to put my foot down, and did it himself. After that we enjoyed some more dangerous driving, and then he said: “Ok, you can pick up your license starting tomorrow. Thanks for the chewing gum”.

And I still had the two hundred bucks.

Fact Sheet

You only have to go to a driving school and take the exam if you do not hold a valid driver’s license issued by your home country.
The papers you need to submit for a license are: passport with a valid Russian visa and a registration at OVIR; a medical certificate; and your national driver’s license with a certified translation.

If the Russian license is to be your first, you have to take the full exam.

Before taking the exam you have to enroll for a two-month course at a driving school.

The driving school should be registered with the State Road Traffic Safety Inspectorate (GIBDD) which will later handle your exam.

Before taking the official exam you will have to sit a mock-up test at your school and have a medical, which is also normally handled by the school.

The GIBDD exam is standard for both Russian citizens and foreigners. It consists of: a multiple–choice test (pencil and paper or computerized); obstacle course; street driving with a police inspector in the passenger seat.

After you pass the test you can receive your license on the spot — your paperwork will already have been filed by the school, the test results submitted by the police inspector in charge of the exam, and all you will have to do is pay the standard fee, have your photo taken at the police station and wait for them to print out your license.

A Russian driver’s license is issued for a period of 10 years, a medical certificate is subject to renewal every 3 years.

All driver’s license applications from foreign citizens are handled by the GIBDD at 8 Stari Tolmachevskiy Pereulok. Tel: (095) 951-3262, 951-8157

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