On May 9, Russia celebrated the anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The next day — the Saturday of a long holiday weekend — the toll of auto accidents reached 601. Three accidents alone claimed 18 lives.
Two days later a bus collided with a truck on the Moscow to St. Petersburg road, killing eight more people.
"The motorway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg is the road of death. It's scary to drive there with heavy trucks rushing along in the oncoming lane," said Aleksandr Latyshev, a journalist for the Izvestiya newspaper who often uses the road.
The highway between Russia's two largest cities is one lane in each direction. About 1,500 people die on it every year, most in head-on collisions. Vehicles also kill scores of pedestrians in towns along the highway.
"The speed limit in towns is 60 kilometers per hour. But no one goes the speed limit because when you're tired and the road is good, you want to get home as soon as possible," Latyshev said.
In this vast country, a deadly combination of careless driving, rampant corruption, aging cars, and bad roads adds up to a huge risk for those who get behind the wheel and for those who get in their way.
The statistics paint a grisly picture:
• About 33,300 people died nationwide in 233,800 accidents registered in 2007. That's almost as many auto-related fatalities as the entire European Union, which has about 3.5 times Russia's population and six times as many vehicles.
• In 2007, about 900 deaths per 1 million vehicles were reported in Russia, 10 times as many as in Germany and 5.5 times as many as in the United States.
• About 900 people die each year on the Moscow to Rostov-on-Don highway, a major route from central Russia to Black Sea resorts, and on the road linking Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk.
• Although more Russians die of respiratory and circulatory diseases each year, in the Federal Statistics Service's "accidents, poisonings, and injuries category" for 2006, only suicide claimed more lives than transport accidents.
NIHILISM ON WHEELS
Vladimir Kuzin, deputy chief of Russia's traffic police, blamed undisciplined drivers for most fatalities. "The primary cause of high mortality on the roads [is] drivers' lack of respect for the law, a nihilism about the rules of the road. Drivers don't maintain speed limits, don't yield to pedestrians on crosswalks, and don't wear their seat belts."
Drivers were responsible for 84 percent of fatal accidents last year, according to official statistics. This year, the government hiked fines for driving offenses. The penalty for running a red light, for instance, rose from 100 to 700 rubles (about $30), for not wearing a seatbelt from 50 to 500 rubles (about $20), for going more than 60 kph over the speed limit from 500 to 5,000 rubles (about $200) plus a license suspension for two to four months. The average monthly wage in Russia is about 13,500 rubles ($560).
Those caught driving under the influence face losing their license for two to three years.
Perhaps as a result, road accidents fell by 11 percent in the first three months of 2008 from the same period in 2007. Fatalities dropped by 10 percent and accidents involving drunk drivers plunged by 20 percent.
"Our penalties are still more lenient than in other countries, but the fine surge has had an effect," said Vladimir Shevchenko, spokesman for the traffic police.
Vladimir Fyodorov, traffic police chief from 1990 to 2003 and currently a member of the upper parliamentary chamber, notes a slight improvement in road safety. "In 1990, every fourth accident was linked to drunken drivers, whereas now it's only 9 percent. Although one in 10 vehicles being driven by a drunken driver is still a lot."
But critics say the higher fines have just pushed up bribes. Many drivers pulled over by traffic police offer bribes amounting to 50 percent of a possible fine. The Moscow-based Indem think tank estimates that the total amount of annual bribes increased between fivefold and tenfold from an estimated 500 million rubles before the new penalties took effect.
In an April poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 57 percent of drivers said they had encountered traffic police who solicited bribes by threatening to fine them for fabricated offenses.
For its part, the Interior Ministry says it fights corruption, citing 7,000 instances of bribery uncovered and 5,300 police officers sacked in 2007.
Viktor Pokhmelkin, chairman of the Russian Movement of Vehicle Drivers, predicted the fine surge will have only a short-term effect as drivers become accustomed to them. As for the traffic police, he said, "Traffic police react to offenses rather than prevent them. They have no incentives to do the latter."
Pokhmelkin blamed old Russian-made vehicles for the high fatality rate.
"The Russian cars lack basic safety devices like air bags and anti-lock braking systems. Fewer people die in foreign-made vehicles," he said.
Russia has the oldest vehicle fleet in Europe. The average car is 14.3 years old compared with 8 years old in EU countries. Automobiles younger than 10 years account for only 19 percent of those on the road, according to the Avtostat analysis center. The 7.7 million rear-wheel-drive Ladas on Russian roads account for 26.5 percent of the total number of vehicles in the country.
Those rickety cars drive each day along clogged, ramshackle roads.
Poor roads caused nearly 44,000 accidents and 6,700 auto-related deaths last year. Russia, the world's biggest country, has only slightly more distance of paved roadways than Germany and less than one-eighth that of the United States.
And many of the country's highways, about one-third, according to the Transportation Ministry, need urgent repair.
Meanwhile, new road construction cannot hope to keep pace with increasing car ownership. The number of vehicles in Russia more than tripled between 1991 and 2007, while the length of roads grew by only about one-third. Aleksandr Mirashin, deputy minister of transportation, told the State Duma in March that the government plans to build 63,000 kilometers of roads before 2015, extending the road infrastructure by 9 percent. As many as 50,000 of the 120,000 Russian towns lack paved roads.
But new or improved highways bring with them a new set of problems.
"We repair roads, fill the potholes, but accidents rise. You won't drive fast on a bumpy road," Vladimir Fyodorov, the former traffic police chief, said.
The Russian authorities admit that they will not be able to reduce auto-related fatalities to levels registered in other European countries within the next few years. In 2005, then-President Vladimir Putin tasked the authorities with bringing down road deaths to 23,000 before 2012, three to five times the average European level. Nevertheless, it would be a significant improvement over the early 1990s, when 35,000 to 37,000 people were killed in motor-vehicle accidents every year, even in that era of fewer cars.
I OWN THE ROAD
It is in the big cities, where traffic slows to 10 to 20 kph during rush hours, that congestion and bad habits create the highest risk.
"In major cities, especially in Moscow, traffic is a real pain in the neck," Viktor Kiryanov, chief of the traffic police, told reporters in March.
Pedestrians, moving off the sidewalk to get around cars parked there, are often hit.
"There are no conditions for pedestrians. They take to the road because they don't want to wipe vehicles with their trousers and skirts," Fyodorov said.
But at the same time, as in so much of Russian life, senior officials enjoy excellent road conditions. They may legally equip their cars with emergency lights so that other vehicles must yield to them. In 2006, the government limited the number of officials eligible to use the lights to 1,000. More than half of the permits went to the Federal Security Service, the Federal Guard Service, and the Interior Ministry. The Presidential Administration was given the right to use emergency lights on 60 vehicles and the government, 35.
Lower-ranking officials have special license plates that help them in traffic. Businesspeople who want to drive faster in congested traffic buy these plates illegally for $10,000 to $30,000.
A vehicle equipped with emergency lights or bearing a special license plate may defy the rules, such as using the oncoming lane to get around jams. Such cars are 12 times more likely to cause an accident than ordinary ones, according to police statistics.
Last fall, a vehicle escorting Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev crossed into oncoming traffic and rammed into a Lada, killing its driver.
In February, a vehicle carrying the traffic police chief, using an oncoming lane to get around a Moscow traffic jam, hit a woman, who suffered a fractured leg and concussion. She was later found guilty of causing the accident by crossing the street in the wrong place and failing to yield to a police vehicle with flashing lights.