Intersections: Improving traffic safety in Armenia

Reporting from Yerevan — A few years ago, walking and driving on the streets of Armenia's capital Yerevan was downright dangerous. A small city with heavy foot traffic and a relentless army of taxis, cars and vans, it lacked enforcement of traffic rules and proper street signage.

Now, with the creation of the National Road Safety Council of Armenia, a non-governmental organization that works to implement change and raise awareness in road safety, Yerevan's streets have vastly improved, leading to a reduction in the number of fatal accidents from 407 in 2008 to 275 in 2010 — and perhaps coincidentally, lowered blood pressure rates of residents and tourists who engaged in a game of Russian roulette every time they wanted to cross the street.

The success, according to road safety council founder Poghos Shahinyan, can be attributed to combined efforts of a number of different initiatives, including enforcement of seat belts, the introduction of countdown pedestrian crossing clocks, education in schools and new technology used by law enforcement.

“Armenia was accepted by the international community as successful in adopting a national road safety strategy,” Shahinyan said.

The landlocked South Caucasus country was also considered to be a model in road safety from post-Soviet countries, according to road safety council public relations specialist Naira Karapetyan.

“No one thinks that Armenia can change, but we did it,” she said.

The introduction of zebra-stripe crossings and traffic regulations, including fines for pedestrians and drivers, has led residents to become more aware of their surroundings.

“People are more organized; they wait until the green signs appear,” said Nelly, a 23-year-old Yerevan resident who would only give her first name. “In comparison with the past three years, I would even say that pedestrians are more self-organized than the drivers.”

In order to effect change early on, the National Road Safety Council of Armenia strategy has included road safety education in the classroom, where the organization works with children in 60 schools.

Last month, they launched “Road Safety Week in Armenia” — in conjunction with the United Nations Department for Public Information and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office of Yerevan — in which schoolchildren were paired with traffic police officers, advising pedestrians who were breaking traffic rules with fliers. Children also helped re-paint a pedestrian crossing in the city.

An independent grass-roots effort launched by Armenian youth activists called “Green? Go” has also been created to remind people about pedestrian safety regulations.

Even with the road safety situation improving steadily, Yerevan still has a long way to go. Many taxi drivers don’t buckle their seat belts, only leaving them across their chest superficially so they don't incur fines. The National Road Safety Council is working with insurance companies to make wearing seat belts compulsory for taxi drivers, Shahinyan said.

Martshutkas — seat-belt-less minivans that operate as the city's bus system where you can find dozens of people crammed together like sardines — are also being phased out, and will be replaced by buses, he said.

Luxury car aficionados who have a penchant for fast driving on Yerevan's busy streets are also a problem; however, the National Road Safety Council has outlined a strategy to introduce car racing tracks where drivers can compete in a safe environment, instead of creating risks for other cars or pedestrians in the city center.

With many pedestrians and cars still disregarding traffic regulations and crossing illegally, constant enforcement of rules is also necessary in order to change deep-rooted habits, advocates said.

“In general, I don't like the police supervision in the streets,” Nelly said. “They are never on time to solve the heavy traffic problems — I just wonder where they are.”

National Road Safety Council officials, while proud of their success in achieving a 40% reduction in traffic fatalities from 2008 to 2010, say they recognize the long road ahead. A U.N. resolution, “The Decade of Action for Road Safety,” calls for a 50% reduction of road traffic fatalities by 2020.

“The thing is is that everybody understands what the problem is,” Shahinyan said. “You never think that 'this will happen to me,' and that's the problem with road safety. I don't think that there is anyone in Armenia who has never been involved in an accident or seen an accident.”

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a freelance journalist based in Armenia for the summer. She has written for LA Weekly, EurasiaNet, New America Media, and Los Angeles Times Community News.

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