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.”