COLUMN ONE : Moscow Can Drive You Crazy : Some traffic lights never turn green. Road construction projects may take five years. And keep your windshield wipers inside the car.


When it starts to rain in the Soviet capital, it is as though a referee has called time out in the game of one-upmanship played along the Ring Road that circles the Kremlin.

Whether at the wheel of a lowly subcompact Zaparozhets or a chauffeured, black Volga shuttling the Communist elite, drivers promptly brake to a stop, jump out and install their windshield wipers.

Keeping these locked away, along with side-view mirrors, when the car is parked is a necessary precaution against theft in a country where people have no other way of acquiring spare parts.

From the left-hand lanes reserved for speeding limousines to the traffic lights here and there that never change from red, driving in Moscow demands more savvy than safety, plus an appreciation for the Soviet theater of the absurd.

Left turns are forbidden except at the rare intersection that has a signal light. Yet U-turns are permissible on 12-lane highways, and junctions are dissected by tram tracks.

Construction projects spring up overnight, closing traffic lanes for as long as five years. Such disruptions are never marked, and this results in huge bottlenecks as four lanes of traffic are abruptly squeezed into one or two.

The pedestrian has virtually no rights in the Soviet Union, and if a foreign driver, appalled by the game of chicken played out at crosswalks, tries to give the pedestrian a break, he just causes confusion.

In order to cross a broad stretch of highway where there is no underpass, the Muscovite on foot usually makes his way a lane or two at a time, stopping on the dotted white lines that separate the lanes to wait for another break in the flow. The traffic roars by, before and behind, with terrifying proximity.

The Soviet news agency Tass contends that nearly half of all accidents in the Soviet Union are caused by pedestrians, many of them from the provinces and unaware of the need to look both ways before proceeding.

Only one in 10 Soviet families has a car, and most owners live in the cities. In some villages there are no cars at all.

There are no known statistics, but any number of people are killed or injured while repairing a car or truck in the middle of a highway.

Tow trucks are virtually non-existent, so disabled vehicles stand where they have conked out, often with the hood up and the driver peering at the engine while speeding traffic veers left and right to avoid a collision.

A jack is considered a luxury. The hapless driver with a flat tire is required to raise the car as best he can, then prop it up with bricks and boards while he changes the tire.

Since there is no such thing as an auto parts store, mechanics are forced to improvise. Gaskets are cut from old blankets. Brassiere straps replace worn-out fan belts. Motor oil and spark plugs are recycled, not out of concern for the environment but because fresh replacements are unavailable.

Newcomers to Moscow often marvel at the number of huge trucks and farm vehicles rattling around town without cargo or evident purpose. Soviet drivers are required to meet mileage quotas, so circling the Ring Road a few dozen times makes them look productive.

Street lighting is poor, even in the center of the capital, yet driving regulations require cars to go about with parking lights only--apparently a holdover from wartime blackouts. Headlights are to be used only in tunnels and underpasses, which are usually far better illuminated than the streets.

If a driver emerging from a tunnel forgets to switch off his headlights, he's likely to encounter a traffic policeman making what appears to be a victory sign pointed at his own eyes. This means, "Turn off your lights."

Traffic signal lights can be deceptive. At a major intersection along the Ring Road near the Dobryniskaya subway station, two of four lanes bring drivers to a light that never changes from red, while the two right lanes allow turns when the intermittent green arrow is illuminated.

The lanes-to-nowhere exist at a number of intersections where, according to vehicular veterans, traffic once flowed forward but eventually had to be cut off to ease perpetual gridlock.

Unwary drivers trapped in front of always-red lights are fair game for bored traffic police who have invented a new citation--getting yourself into a situation from which there is no legal escape.

Signs warning drivers "Do Not Occupy the Left Lane" have no connection with the red-light trap. They are posted to let the proletariat know that the inside track is reserved for high-level Communist Party officials.

But the party's authority has been slipping, and an increasing number of drivers are courting a citation by passing or traveling in the left lane, which is marked with a solid line instead of a dotted one.

Minor violations have always been negotiable, and a three-ruble note (about $5 at the official exchange rate) carefully inserted in the folded driver's permit will usually convince a traffic cop-- mili-men, they are called--that he didn't really see an infraction.

Among the most common citations are those for driving a dirty car and crossing the solid white line into the privileged limousine lane.

Foreign motorists, especially those from the West, are the favorite targets for corrupt traffic cops. And the Soviet auto registration system leaves little room for doubt about the driver's nationality.

Soviet-owned cars have white license plates with black figures. Foreign-owned cars have red or yellow plates--the former for diplomats, the latter for businessmen, journalists and visitors' rental cars.

Aside from the color, the plates are coded to designate the owner's nationality and line of work. American news correspondents, for example, have plates that begin with K 004.

For a foreigner, $10 is the usual bribe offered to avoid a frivolous citation, which, like the serious ones, is recorded by punching a hole--a dirochka-- at the edge of the driving permit. The date is also noted. If a driver accumulates three within one year, the mili-man is required to confiscate the license.

Not to worry. There are no computers to recall that a foreigner has obtained a license, so anyone forced to surrender his can simply apply for, and obtain, another.

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