Driving in Moscow

Daniel Brooks

Someone visiting Moscow might be tempted to rent a car and drive it in the city.  This not something I would necessarily recommend. However, those tempted to have an adventure will have one.


Lane Theft

The first thing to remember is that in Moscow, if someone wants your lane, the other driver might simply take it. The best thing to do is to yield, even if the other vehicle is behaving rudely.

Lane theft is a widespread problem at busy intersections where a line forms to take a right or left-hand turn.  Some drivers will wait their turn patiently in the proper lane, closest to the side of the road. Many don’t. Often a line forms in the second and even third lane out, well before the turn. Sometimes all the lanes of Moscow busiest roads are completely blocked as long lines of drivers do everything they can to cut to the front of the line by occupying several lanes of traffic. No one wants to wait their turn in line. The heavier the traffic, the worse this problem becomes. This is acutely aggravating on the MKAD (the four-lane ring road surrounding Moscow) where long lines form, three and four lanes wide, to take right hand turns, especially leading to the shopping centers. The entire highway ends up being completely jammed for several kilometers behind the exit. If you use the MKAD to drive to Domodedovo airport, as I do, these traffic jams become old friends. After the turn off, the road clears up until the next major turn off, continuing right around the city, one big traffic jam after another.

If the Moscow city authorities were to use cameras to film drivers making illegal turns from the wrong lane, they would earn a fortune.

If you occupy the far lane before a turn off, you will be met with other drivers cutting in when the time comes to finally make the turn. Expect quite a few of them. Many are large SUV’s and expensive sedans. As a general rule, the bigger the car, the less fear the driver has. Black cars with tinted windows are especially assertive. Interestingly, the drivers occupying the proper lane are usually very patient about letting the other drivers cut in.  It’s as if bending the traffic rules in this way is an accepted practice, perhaps because at one point or another, everyone does it.  I know I have.

The rule of thumb is to simply get in the proper lane and wait it out. Turn on some music, relax and chill. I often find something on YouTube to occupy my time. If someone wants to cut in, so be it, but one at a time. Nice and easy.

Once you turn onto a major highway and find yourself moving along at the speed limit (110 KMH), keep a close eye on the rearview mirror. I recommend looking behind your vehicle as often as you look in front of it.  I drive on the Novaya Riga highway, otherwise called the M-9, on my way to and from home.  As a rule, I set my cruise control at 110 kmh and settle in to watch the vehicles around me.  At about any given time, one or more cars can be seen roaring up the highway at breakneck speed.  Some are in the left lane, where they belong, while others can be seen swerving at alarming speeds from the left to right hand lanes of the highway without slowing down. Often, two cars can be seen following closely behind one another in a mad race down the highway. These are the most dangerous ones.  The drivers of these cars have no fear to speak of.  They often leave no room for error as they weave from lane to lane without slowing down, merging at full throttle with less than a car length to spare.  After they pass your vehicle, keep an eye on these drivers as they bang on down the highway in front of you. I’ve seen more than one accident caused by these insane Russian drivers right in front of my eyes and I always prepare for the worse to come.

The traffic police mostly stop vehicles by standing on the side of the road and flagging them down with a white stick. Very rarely do the Russian traffic police patrol the roads in their vehicles. If they would, perhaps something could be done about the insane drivers who let off steam by speeding down the roadways like there is no tomorrow.

Recently, more and more drivers are being fined by speed cameras. This has slowed down traffic and improved it considerably. The fines for speeding start at 500 Rubles. I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket above that amount but have heard the highest fine for speeding is 3000 Rubles. These fines aren’t entered into anyone’s driving record and they don’t affect insurance rates.  Perhaps some don’t mind paying the fine, something that can be conveniently taken care of on line. In any event, kamakazi drivers in Russia are still out there. Watch out for them.

Keep an eye out in front of you, as you drive down the road, for someone who has stopped in the middle of the road. I’ve often seen a phenomenon in Russia that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Vehicles who’ve missed their exit come to a full stop and then back up to the point where they can take a turn. This happens on highways and busy roads. It often causes me to go off on a rant. Another thing to watch out for the sudden appearance, without warning, of construction crews and machinery, the sudden disappearance of lanes and road work going on right in the middle of the road. If you are driving in the country side through a small village, watch out for villagers on the road itself along with their children, dogs, chickens and tractors. The road you are driving on might be the only one the villagers have. Often, these obstructions aren’t well marked in advance. It’s an acute problem at night.  All I can say is, be alert.

Lane discipline in Russia is improving. Nevertheless, passing in the right lane is common. Often the right lanes move along faster than the left ones.  I’m certainly guilty of using them.  Whenever I go back to the states, I’m asked why I’m driving in the right-hand lane to pass someone.

Many major roads in Moscow now have bus lanes. These are for buses and taxis only. Occupy the bus lane at the last minute, before you take a turn. Many of these lanes have cameras pointed at them. You’ll get a fine in the mail if you use the bus lanes illegally.

Another confounding process in Moscow is making a left-hand turn.  On many roads in Moscow, this is not possible. Instead, your GPS will often show you to drive ahead and make a u-turn, then return on the same road to make a right. The u-turn can be harrowing. Often, every vehicle in the u-turn lane will make a run for it and turn around together in a crowd instead of going about it one car at a time. If you face this u-turn madness, let everyone else go first. It takes time to learn the ropes and take your proper place in a mob of cars turning around on a major thoroughfare together, like one big happy family.

No turns are ever allowed at a red light. If there is a small round unlit signal box next to the red light, it houses a green turn signal. Make your turn once the green arrow appears and not before. If you don’t, and if a policeman is nearby, you could have your license appropriated.

Speaking of appropriation, remember that in Russia, your driver’s license can be confiscated if you have any alcohol at all in your bloodstream, in any quantity. This is zero tolerance at its finest. In my neighborhood, the police are often busy on Monday morning as people like me drive to work, especially following holiday weekends. After a document check, don’t be surprised if the police ask you to exhale directly into his nose. Go ahead and do it; it’s his job. I’ve done it several times and didn’t envy the police.  If the police officer suspects you of drinking after the nose test, you’ll be given a breathalyzer. Once I had to do it on an early New Year’s morning. At the time, we had a small infant in the house and on New Year’s Eve we hadn’t had anything to drink at all. The policeman took a deep breath when I blew at his nose. It could not have been much fun. Afterwards he wanted me to give him a few Rubles, as a holiday gift. I didn’t do it.

Usually I don’t drink on Sundays to avoid having my driver’s license taken away from me on Monday morning.  This cuts down on drinking, a good thing, I suppose.

The police can pull over and fine a driver if the headlights are not turned on, even during the day, or the driver isn’t wearing a seatbelt. Many Russians don’t like wearing seatbelts and will lay it across their chests when they see a policeman to avoid being stopped.  Also, never cross any kind of a solid white or yellow line. This is against the law. Look for dotted white lines, these can be crossed to make turns without risk of having your driver’s license taken away from you.

Driving in the winter is much different from driving in the non-snowy seasons. Russians are especially skilled at driving around in the snow and ice. In some ways, it seems at times like they prefer it. Almost all the Russians will drive along at sane speeds in the snow and almost everyone becomes patient and mostly respectful.  That doesn’t mean the kamakazis go away when it snows.  I’ve seen many Russians barreling down the road in a raging snowstorm at top speed, indifferent to the elements or their own longevity.  It’s more rarely seen in winter than in other seasons, thankfully, but it still happens.

If you have an accident in Russia, don’t move your car. Optimally, leave it where you collided with the other car, in contact with it.  Call the police. You aren’t allowed to move your car to the side of the road after an accident. Because of the frequent lane changes and other Russian driving habits, fender benders are not uncommon, causing traffic to worsen in the city as smashed up vehicles stand waiting in the middle of the road, waiting for the police to arrive.

Another characteristic of Russian drivers is their patience.  Russians don’t beep their horns very often.  They will give up their lanes for one another.  They will put up with cars stopped in the middle of the road who’ve run out of gas or have simply stopped functioning.

There is such a thing as road rage, however, in this country.  I once was cut off by another driver who forced me to come screeching to a halt to avoid running into him when he swerved into my lane. I honked my horn for a very long time and made a rude gesture. This made him mad. Very mad. He stopped his car and jumped out of it with a tire jack in his hand. I had to put my car in reverse and drive away, backwards, to escape him.  He came running after me but then realized his car was sitting in the middle of the road, motor running, with the key in the ignition and the door open.  That, and the lack of traffic behind me, saved me and my car from being smashed up. Ever since then, I let sleeping dogs lie.

Sometimes the unhappiness of Russian drivers will remain dormant until someone complains. The other day I was driving out of an office complex.  A delivery van pulled up and blocked the only entrance and exit to the building, causing a back-up of cars on all sides. No one complained until I got out of the car to go talk to the driver. At that point, all the other drivers got out as well. Soon about a dozen drivers were yelling highly creative obscenities at the delivery man who, interestingly, refused to move his van until he was done unloading it.

This is a partial list of suggestions for driving in Moscow. I could go on and on but I’m running out of space. Here is a link that has more full and detailed information about driving in Russia. Anyone driving here for the first time should read it.

The other option is to use taxis and public transport.  I would think the reader realises by now which one I suggest.