Sunday, May 31, 2009

On driving in Latvia, present and recent past

I have started driving more again as summer arrives and I go back and forth to the family summer place in Carnikava for various reasons. I get the feeling that recent habits, which seem to have faded(slightly but noticeably) in the last few years, are re-emerging. Another striking fact is that at  almost every red light in central Riga, you can see around  three to five SUVs (sports utility vehicles, Latvians tend to call them jeeps) among the 10 to 15 cars that usually line up at an intersection. This seems like a high proportion, especially since I was at a gathering recently where a Swedish businessman said that his Latvian partner had driven around 1000 kilometers in Sweden and was surprised to have seen only a handful of Porsche Cayennes. Still another person who runs an auto parts and repair business said that one should look at the tires of the Latvian SUVs. Many still have winter tires because they cannot afford new summer tires at 200 LVL per tire. 
I think the high proportion of SUVs is a sign that the middle classes (who own "ordinary" cars) are driving substantially less than before. For those driving the "jeeps" it may also be a last gasp and a badge of economic success that will not be given up until the bank comes for it. Latvia already is said to be a buyer's market for late model, high-end repossessed vehicle.
I also found the draft of an article that was published in Tallinn' s (now defunct?)  City Paper  four years ago. There have been some changes for the better since, but a lot is still true.


Building a new road for the insane

by Juris Kaza


            If it were only the statistics that counted, I would say Latvia has a come a bit of a way from 1991, when more than 900 people were killed on the roads, with far fewer cars than are registered currently. Today, with luck, the annual contribution of Latvia’s highways and byways to cemetery tenancy will be considerably less. However, for the visitor to Latvia, it is what one sees in day-to-day behavior and not abstract figures that count.

            If you have to drive in this country, then you will be among the most savage, barbarian drivers in Europe. Boorish, too – and this, as one would say of perverted computer software, is a feature and not a bug.

             I kid you not. Do not drive into Latvia with a loaded automatic weapon or even a baseball bat on the “death seat” next to the driver. You will not only be tempted, but also probably morally justified to use one, either or both on many of your fellow drivers.

            There is no typical Latvian driver –rather a varied menagerie of the reckless, loutish, egotistical and thoughtless. You can watch them zooming, whizzing, passing in three different directions – to the right, to the left and some improvised direction in between (this can, perhaps, be done on a S-curve where you start the overtake on one side and finish on the other). 

            Inevitably the moment comes when some huge Scania or Volvo truck appears looming in the rearview mirror. You may notice an imitation license plate in the cab window with a name like “TARMO” embellishing it. As the juggernaut grows still larger in the mirror – tailgating is also a Baltic truckers’ hobby – you face the imposing menace of the Estonian monster truck. These things simply go. It is you and other drivers with an exaggerated attachment to life and limb who move. Tarmo, for all we know, is an inflatable propped on the seat of a machine driven by satellite guidance.

            However, once you subtract the trucks from the wheeled zoo on Latvia’s roads, you are sort of left with the world as it was when the dinosaurs were on the decline. All that other traffic, swirling and parting as Tyrannosaurus Estonicus lumbers along at a relatively lethargic 100+ kph is the furry mammals that supposedly scampered at the feet of the great lizards. But that comparison breaks down – the smaller vehicles and their drivers are nothing like the predecessors of the many warm and cuddly species we enjoy in the contemporary animal kingdom. Drivers in Latvia are the creatures from the Gremlins movies of the 1980s, the screeching rat-bat mutants who took a satanic delight in malicious mischief.

            Alas, even that comparison breaks down, because the average Latvian driver (male) is almost as expressionless –either stone-faced or shitfaced (your guess is as good as mine)—as our pal Inflatable Tarmo. The women – often sleek trophy wives piloting combat-vehicle-sized SUVs with horsepower four times the woman’s kilogram weight – have a bit more written on their visages, along the lines of “I’m dumb, blonde and shouldn’t be driving a left-foot roller skate”.

            Since I spend my summers in Carnikava just north of Riga,  I experience most of the antics of Latvia’s highway Huns (speaking of whom, we’ll get to the Germans later) on the stretch of one of Latvia’s laboratories of the “let’s dig something up every summer” school of experimental highway building, the so-called Via Baltica. Mostly it is the segment between Adazi and the posh, by Latvian standards, suburb of Baltezers.

            Here on any day, you can see all the vices of the Latvian road – reckless passing, high speeds, sudden, startling unsignalled lane shifts and the favorite sport of tailgating. Apparently such things as the physics of stopping a vehicle aren’t taught in the driving school classrooms, or if taught, simply dismissed and forgotten. The reassuring thing about Latvian tailgaters is that they probably won’t hit and run should something happen, they’ll hit and sit (next to you, the driver in the front car) after flying in though your rear window.

            I want to interject here that I, who learned to drive in the reputedly bad-road manners Boston (USA) area, sincerely believe that I drive as one of the few who are sane. I do sometimes express my opinions of the other drivers until my wife says that I shouldn’t say “monkey brained moron” and the like when our nine-year-old is in the car.  I actually think, but do not articulate, far worse things: Yo, motherfucker, your Lexus SUV is very fast and yes, only your funeral will be bigger than your fucking car.

            The strange thing is that the often brand new and extravagant vehicles drag racing down the Adazi-Baltezers stretch are probably not, for the most part, purchased by the quick and shady big money that rolled through Latvia in the early 1990s  like a tsunami from the burst bellyful of ownerless post-Soviet assets. A lot of them are bought on the installment plan, leased and otherwise financed from some kind of regular employment or steady business and an above-average income.

            So what we have here are middle and upper income folks Mr. Hyde-ing it as soon as they put the key in the ignition of that BMW. Sudden, apparent prosperity, a caricatured Soviet presumption of how “capitalists” should consume, and the lingering, paranoid inferiority complex of the post-Soviet personality all, perhaps, come into play. It is not possible for all of us to simply drive to work, trusting and respecting other drivers. It is so much easier to hit the gas pedal, come what may and pretend that the entire commute, from home driveway to dumping the monster SUV in a handicapped space to buy cigarettes to the final parking spot by the office is one big thrill-ride.

            When I lived in Germany in the late 1970s, I observed something similar. On the Autobahn, there was always someone flashing super-nova bright high-beams and tailgating at 180 kph until you moved over and let the Teutonic schaefer-hellhound whiz by. Then I thought that Fritz (as Latvians sometimes call Germans) was getting a little Macht Frei (very loosely translated as “making/taking liberties) after three decades of post-war Arbeit (labor). It was also a time when more and more Germans could afford big, fast cars, and the no-speed limit Autobahn was a place to act out being a berserker in contrast to the Ordnung of the workplace and everyday life. Somehow, too, the traces of the totalitarian experience (especially since they largely brought it on themselves, voting for Adolf in ’33) were then still part of the German mentality. Things have probably improved – though I haven’t driven the Autobahn recently– but it took decades.

            For drivers in Latvia, I wonder if some kind of victimhood in reverse is behind this behavior. It is self-assertion on methedrine from a bad and dirty drugs lab. I also suspect it spills over into other aspects of life – the ugly, raving, sometimes Bible thumping mob that wanted to assault Latvia’s first gay and lesbian pride march. They literally wanted to beat and tear these people apart for Christ (who, when I last looked, was called the Lamb, not the Wolverine of God). Put these people in fast cars, and they’ll attempt a few killings for their own personal wolverine, which takes over their brain as soon as the tires start turning.

            This is the really scary aspect. Though I’m no sociopsychiatrist, mob-shrink or whatever they call those who diagnose diseases of the spirit affecting large parts of a society, I see links between the behavior on the roads and the dark undercurrents of homophobia, racism, xenophobia and what is wonderfully described in Latvian as karojoša tumsonība – crusading ignorance (though tumsonība has a pernicous twist, it ain’t just being dumb…)


   In late summer, they closed down and detoured the mad raceway segment of the Via Baltic that runs past Adazi north of Riga. When, eventually, a sign is put up explaining to what purpose (but not why), yet again, this segment of Latvian highway is being torn up and rebuilt, I would vote for having the text say, “Building a new road for the insane.”



Anonymous said...

"I’m no sociopsychiatrist, mob-shrink or whatever they call those who diagnose diseases of the spirit affecting large parts of a society". Veterinarian, continuing your zoo metaphor. Tyrannosaurus Estonicus ha ha. This is a riot. Great piece.

Anonymous said...

Ooh a bit harsh, got married in Riga in 1999. Since then I've been back to Latvia two or three times a year seeing family and friends, we always drive from England. Over the years I have noticed a marked improvement in both the roads and the driving. The manners experienced don't quite match the courtesy we take for granted in England but once you get used to it you fit in well enough.
The year I decided to bring my motorbike was a revelation but in fairness no worse than Poland.
However I did chuckle at your energetic descriptives and have experienced, over the years, most of the elements described.
Whilst I'm here does any one know of any changes to the rules with regard to bringing or driving a foreign vehicle into Latvia. My wife mentioned several people on are insisting there is a change in rules but I remain, for the time being, unconvinced. Any advice is welcome as we are driving over in July.
I've enjoyed several of your past rants, they provide an refreshing alternative view of Latvia, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right on! We were in Latvia in June and my 24 year-old son was driving. He was driving with conscious caution having never visited the Baltics before. But you can imagine his shock when passing a car on a two-lane highway, when the car behind us passed him at the same time. I was so glad I was travelling with adult children as my mantra in the highway was,"Holy Shit!"

Anonymous said...

I'm English and am living here for a month with a view to living here full time.

The driving has been the scariest thing for me - I'm quite used to continental driving, and the odd rules about priority and the like.

I have got to grips with trams, giving way even in your own lane, people driving like they are insane, and the god-awful roads.

It's actually quite fun when you get used to it, although once I have a family I shall probably regard it more as a health hazard than anything else.

Thanks for the article, it was a great read :)

Oh, Carrots! said...

A very cathartic blog, Juris. Keep up the good work, and good luck in retaining your sanity!

What's really frustrating is that most Latvians don't blink an eye at this kind of behaviour on the roads. They simply don't know any better. It's just "normāls".

I don't want to spam your blog, but I think you may enjoy something I wrote recently on the same subject:

Anonymous said...

You might want to try walking the sidewalks in Riga. It seems that this year in particular bicyclists have declared war on pedestrians...or maybe just 'starting this year'.

I tell friends that if they want to feel total physical insecurity, come to Riga and be a pedestrian. You have to worry about sinkholes, low and uncut branches, other pedestrians who marry themselves to one side of the sidewalk (usually the side that you were on, when they, having started on the other side chose to zig-zag over), the occasional facade falling from above, icicles, snow and hidden black ice in winter, and not least: the bicyclists.

So far, this summer I've seen two collisions of pedestrians and cyclists. Both requiring hospitalization for at least one of the people involved. And I am NOT a medical tech or the like.

The cyclists don't seem to realize that humans sometimes make miniscule adjustments to their walking trajectories. Thus, they have no qualms about riding in excess of 20 km/h at a distance of only a few centimeters from pedestrians.

It feels like warfare. And I'm sure that it is. I'm sure that painting those bike lanes on the sidewalks (in many cases giving cyclists several times more space than pedestrians (space for a pedestrian and a half, meanwhile space for five bicycles), or forcing pedestrians to cross the bike lane repeatedly, and/or creating many blind corners), was done with the knowledge that it would create a huge rift among the already not so courtesy conscious residents of Riga and Latvia.