Rules of the Road
It’s taken a while to get an understanding of the driving habits here, and quite frankly I may not ever fully understand what constitutes driving rules, since I’m not really sure there actually are any rules per se…indeed, many Azerbaijani friends readily admit, they too think the driving here is “crazy.” First of all, pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way. And, if one is EVER to get across a street or road, one has to gather lots of courage and also some fool-hardiness, lest one stands forever waiting for traffic that will never stop, since drivers (including road police) never acquiesce to pedestrians. I noticed this the first day in Azerbaijan, when I spotted out the bus window several old ladies carrying grocery bags crossing in the middle of the block, gingerly jockeying through the lanes of on-coming traffic from the left, until they reached the middle of the road, where they stood as cars whizzed past them until a break in the traffic from the right allowed them to scurry across to the other side. It looked about as safe as trying to cross Aurora Avenue North during rush hour, scale the jersey barrier, and scamper to the other side—crazy! In shock we exclaimed to ourselves what foolish women they must be to brave oncoming traffic and not use the safety of an intersection cross-walk. Well, the fools are we, who think such things as cross-walks might contribute to pedestrian safety. For one thing, few pedestrian crossings exist. And the fact is, crossing at any intersection or pedestrian crossing is itself dangerous, since all cars feel compelled to speed through cross-walks, and whiz around corners, even if they must stop for a red light—they usually stop only after part-way through the intersection, and certainly on or passed the lines of a cross-walk. I found this out the hard way, when by Western standards I totally had the right of way, but found it better to be safe than sorry: I was crossing at an intersection, in the cross-walk, with the traffic light in my favor, when an on-coming car 50 feet away spotted me, and as soon as he did, he sped up and reached the cross-walk just as I was approaching the front of his car; the driver scowled and shook his fist at me, as if I had no right to be in *his* cross-walk, because he wanted to speed through it and the red light…and so he did!
Consequently jay-walking in the middle of the block is the ‘safe’ way to cross streets, where you only have to watch for traffic in 2 directions instead of also traffic turning corners! It works like this: you keep an eye out for a break in the traffic to the left; you cross the appropriate number of lanes to reach the middle of the road; now as cars speed passed you from behind, you wait for a break in traffic coming from the right, then you cross the remaining lanes to reach the other side. This way, you keep an eye only on the traffic from one direction or the other (and hope they don’t cross into the wrong lanes). The only friends who actually ever make an attempt to walk to a corner intersection before trying to cross a street are my fellow American Peace Corps Volunteers—but most of them, too, are now used to this method of surviving the ‘rules of the road’ in Azerbaijan. In fact, a recent returned PCV from Azerbaijan was so used to this method of crossing streets, that the first week back in the States found her racking up a ticket for ‘jay-walking’!!! Something to look out for, I guess!
Traffic on the roads between towns is hair-raising to say the least, but nothing compares to the in-town traffic. Not many own cars, so in Mingechavir, with its wide boulevards and lovely traffic circles with fountains and statues in the middle, it is a haven for racing up and down streets, around corners, at top speeds, surely as fast as drivers can make their cars go—60-70+ before reaching the next intersection. Of course, many are responsible drivers and not so reckless, but for those who wish, there is nothing stopping them from speeding as fast as they can, even swerving to come close to pedestrians—perhaps in an attempt to scare, and get some kind of thrill. In the middle of crossing a completely empty boulevard or traffic circle, I have noticed cars swerve out of their way to see how close they can come to me; I think it must look funny to them to see me pick up my pace or jump out of the way. Well, I have learned to be quite vigilant when walking to work or just around town.
And then there are those drivers who honk all the time, either to make sure pedestrians (or other cars) get out of to their way, or to attract attention (unwanted!) to themselves. Most drivers are male; I have yet to see a woman here in Mingechavir behind the wheel—though I have seen a few (very few) in Baku. And so there are those drivers who slow down and follow a female pedestrian, thinking they can entice her to stop and talk to them—or even climb in their car. Fortunately, I remember the “Danger Stranger” movie from grade-school, and avoid— younger female PCV’s find this kind of harassment particularly unnerving, and rightly so.
There seems to be a prevailing attitude among drivers that driving how ever and where ever they wish is their prerogative. Recently, while standing on the curb in front of a local wedding palace following a wedding, I and several others were watching the wedding couple pull away in their car. Another car, wanting to pass, pulled up onto the curb and hit a pedestrian, a woman standing right next to me and about 6 inches closer to the curb, scrapping her legs and running over her toes –totally senseless!
So how can it be that traffic rules, if there are any, are so totally ignored, and safety so blatantly compromised? Well, for one thing, to drive in town one only needs to have a car—no driving license is required! A license, however, is required to drive out of town and on highways—and there are periodic highway police check-points. However, to get such a license, one must pass the licensing exam…I am not sure how much such licensing is supposed to cost, but it doesn’t much matter what the actual licensing fee is; the only way one is ensured of obtaining a license is to pay the licensing agent the ‘extra fee’ of $1,000-2,000, which he pockets for himself (and partially shares with higher-ups), but ensures thereby that the new driver receives his license. A good number of cars in Mingechavir are taxis, and the licensing fee for them requires still another ‘payment,’ likewise there is an additional ‘fee’ to receive permission to drive one’s marshrutka for transporting the public on prescribed routes. Paying these huge ‘extra fees’ is unfortunately how much business is conducted here, including even in the field of education and also the military. But it certainly applies to drivers’ licensing, and unfortunately thereby reduces or eliminates the incentive to learn and/or abide by road/driver/pedestrian safety.
Traffic circle with fountain
traffic circle at end of street
pedestrian crossing traffic circle
green-mounded garden in center of traffic circle
Mingechavir street scenes
Court-yard entrance to house--all houses are behind large walls
Traffic circle by WWII War Memorial
The Portland Cement Company...just like home!
Kathy by the War Memorial