Driving in Moscow can be scary for the newly arrived, driving expatriate. It takes a few months and some getting used to. For starts, we drive on the right here, something you shouldnât forget, particularly the morning following a night out when oneâs concentration may not be at its best. I have been driving here for a number of years and donât particularly enjoy it, but I think I now know how to do it. Here are a few of my experiences, and a few tips that you might find useful.
New expat drivers
Language, Moscow traffic police and the road signs are perhaps the biggest worries for many foreign drivers here. We now have fantastic technology, that can speak to us and guide us in any direction, in any country in the world. You can use your car navigation system, or your smart phone. Bart, Basil Fawlty, Darth Vader or almost any other celebrity voice, will guide you through the tangled web of Moscow roads. You do not need to speak Russian, however if you get terribly lost, Russian will help if you need to stop and ask the way but even then you can use your phone translator. When I have been lost in Moscow, Russians have always been happy to help.
The driving experience
Moscow roads are Big, Busy and Bad. Traffic jams will stretch your nerves but please keep calm. Russian drivers are calm, they are used to it. They watch television and they donât tend to get angry. They are resigned to their road fate. I have seen women knitting in traffic jams, cats in cars and dogs at the wheel. If you donât like knitting, do Sudoku, a crossword puzzle or watch a movie on your smart phone. I donât recommend doing these things while actually driving, but in case of traffic, allow plenty of time to get from one place to another. Itâs usually better to drive in Moscow at the weekends or during national Russian holidays, when many Russians are away or at their dachas. Moscow roads are huge, with many lanes in each direction and turning left is hard to impossible here. You can only turn left when you see a broken white line or at traffic lights. Roundabouts here are as rare as an honest politician. On any Russian road, always get out of the way if you hear a series of unpleasant get-out-of-my-way electronic barks, from a police car. They have the power to ram you out of the way or even or worse if you block their path, so scram!
Carry your documents with you at all times. That is, a Russian driving license or international driving license, a car insurance certificate, road-test certificate if your car is over three years old, and car registration document. The traffic police stand by the side of the road with a white stick, you will be waved over to stop and asked for all your papers. Some traffic police take a bribe, while others do their job according to protocol. I have seen cars in Moscow with one headlight, no headlights, no car plates, no windows and some looking as if they have just left an off-road car race, where the car had a fight with a tree. I am not totally sure how some cars drive on the road here at all or what the traffic police look for when they stop a car. I have had a broken indicator (signal light) for six months now but have not fixed it, as many Moscow drivers donât usually bother to signal at all when turning. Drivers can be aggressive and manners and politeness can be considered a waste of time. Try not to use your horn, as you never know who is behind the wheel in front of you. I have seen drivers get out of the cars to fight and argue when they have been hooted. Lane-sharing is common here and even expected and encouraged. This is when a car drives over the line, into your lane. Russian drivers are usually very impatient, I have seen them overtake on the inside hard shoulder (lay by lane) and overtake the car in front, on a road zebra crossing. There are new rules on parking in Moscow. You are not supposed to park across a road, on zebra crossing and offenders can be fined, but most drivers ignore this and park on zebra crossings, on the pavements (sidewalks) and almost anywhere else they want to.
Tyres, petrol & washing your car
Each new winter and summer season, you will need to change your tyres. Russians usually do such things at set times of the year; such as in October and April. Take your car to an official dealer or to one of the many car-tyre changing places in Moscow. There are some at petrol stations and a guy will swap your summer for winter tyres, from about 800 roubles. Make sure they balance the wheels and put your tyres into plastic bags to stop your car from getting dirty. Petrol (gas) is very cheap here, as Russia has lots of it. Usually but by no means everywhere, a man will fill up your car for you at petrol stations. This service is usually free but tip them if you want to. Strangely, unleaded fuel is in a red pump, rather than a green one, as it is back home in my own country. Make sure you donât put the wrong fuel into your car, it does happen to the novice driver here. In most garages, paying for fuel is the opposite to back home, you pay for your petrol first then fill up. Be careful to choose a reputable petrol station, as sometimes fuel can be dirty and it will damage your carâs engine. You must carry a fire extinguisher, a reflective jacket and a first aid kit with you at all times. If in doubt, ask your embassy for full car equipment rules.
I was amazed to find out that it is illegal to wash your own car here. I found out the hard way, when one day an angry Russian came up to me in my yard and began shouting at me to stop washing my car. The reason is that local authorities do not want people making a mess of the yards between buildings, which in the centre of Moscow are very cramped. You can only get your car washed at a car wash which can be found at big petrol stations, sometimes in car parks, at shopping centres and sometimes at big dedicated car washing places. In the winter, the roads get full of dirty black snow, so you will need to visit a car-washing place regularly. Prices start at about 300 roubles. It begins to get icy here from about November, so make sure you put anti-freeze into your cooling system, as well as non-freezing cleaning liquid into your windscreen-washing system, before the ice comes or you will be unable to clean your windows. The main Moscow roads are usually cleared regularly of snow. If you do have an accident and are not injured, be ready to spend a long time registering the accident with the police. You have to call the traffic police immediately as well as your insurance company and should not move your car an inch away from the place where the accident occurred; even if you are blocking a major road. The police officer will come and take details, photos, measure the road, and this can take a long time. Without having the police check everything, you will not be able to make any insurance claims.
Personally, I only drive once a month, to go shopping in a large supermarket, as I am a bit nervous of driving in Moscow. I am nervous because of aggression and because of the awful traffic but if you have a family, a car for shopping is essential. Just remember, keep calm, use your mirrors often, watch speed limits and try not to use your horn. Be assertive, plan the journey, use your car navigation or smart phone. Always have plenty of fuel and in-car entertainment, for any potential traffic jams. Always carry your papers and have all the required equipment in your car. In the winter, keep your windows, car plates and headlights clean of black snow or ice. Happy driving.
Jay May, English dad in Moscow