Driving in Moscow
There are over 3 million cars in the city on a daily basis. Recent years have seen a significant growth in the number of cars, which has lead to traffic jams and unavailability of parking space. Driving in Moscow can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated. Traffic accidents (and resulting deaths) are more numerous that in North America and most European countries – despite the fact that there still are fewer cars). Russian drivers regularly ignore traffic lights, road signs and traffic regulations as well as pedestrians, so you have to be very careful and drive defensively at all the time. Random stop-n-checks by the Traffic Cops are regular, and you need not have committed any kind of irregularity to be (legally) pulled-over in this way.
Many Russian drivers have not obtained their driving license in an official way – it is, unfortunately still relatively easy to “buy” a driving license in Russia. For all of these reasons, many expatriates choose not to drive in Moscow. They often make use of a driver provided by their employee, hire a private driver, or use public transportation.
Moscow Road System
Road conditions in Moscow are not too bad but they get worse as you leave town. Generally little attention is paid to paving, maintenance and roadside facilities. Moscow has a complicated road system with three major ring roads: the MKAD or Moscow Ring Road, which goes all the way around Moscow; the Garden Ring which encircles the city center and the Third Ring in-between the MKAD and the Garden Ring. There is also a smaller half-ring road (half because it doesn’t form a closed circle), which is called the Boulevard Ring and is located in the city center. The city center consists of a complicated network of smaller streets and lanes, many of which are one-way streets. The Fourth Transport Ring is to be built in the future.
Documents to Carry with You
Drivers must always carry the following documents with them:
Passport (foreigners must also have their original Russian visa and migration card)
Motor vehicle insurance
A Power of Attorney if the car does not belong to you. If you are driving on office are, the Power of Attorney will normally only be valid for several months at a time and must be renewed on a regular basis.
Technical inspection card
Things to Keep in Mind
Many street signs are in Russian only and finding as address can be tricky. It is better buying a good Moscow street atlas, preferably a larger one that shows all individual buildings. You can also now obtain reliable GPS devices covering Moscow and surroundings.
The whole streets can be closed off when the president or another important person is expected to drive by. Rubevo-Uspenskoye shosse, Kutuzovsy prospect and Novy Arbat are especially prone to these situations, as are the roads to international airports if a major dignitary or delegation is arriving or leaving.
You should take travel routes to and from work into account when looking for an apartment or house in Moscow.
The GIBDD (State Inspection for the Safety or Road Traffic) is the Russian traffic police. Formerly called GAI (State Automobile Inspection), they are still referred to as such by many. The GIBDD is a separate police entity and has nothing to do with the regular Russian police. A traffic police officer is commonly referred to as a “gaishnik”. Despite the official difference between the GIBDD and the Militia, their emergency phone number is the same – 02.
Arbitrary checks by traffic police are frequent. They can stop you to check documents, make sure your technical inspection card has been renewed, etc. While fines for minor violations, such as not wearing a seatbelt, are extremely rare, other violations, such as crossing a solid white line are subject to hefty fines (by Russian standards). Technically, you can also be fined for not having a first-aid kit or a fire extinguisher in your car.
The GIBDD frequently stops drivers on weekend and Monday mornings for alcohol checks. If you fail the breathalyzer test, you will be required to give a blood sample for further analysis. In such instances you want to include one or more sterile syringes in your first-aid kit. Procedures for paying fines are subject to frequent change. Any GIBDD officer must introduce himself (there are almost no female GIBDD officers in Russia) with his title (e.g. sergeant) and his last name upon request, he must show his badge.
To be on the safe side, you should obtain an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) before coming to Russia. Foreigners staying in Russia for less than six months can use their national driving licence, but must have the licence translated into Russian. The translation must be notarized. Foreigners intending to stay in Russia for longer than six months must obtain a Russian driving licence.
Normally any foreigner wishing to apply for a Russian driving licence must provide the following documents:
His/her passport and valid Russian visa with the OVIR registration stamp
A medical certificate (available from any major health clinic)
His/her national driving licence, a notarized photocopy of the licence, and a notarized translation
If the original (national) driving licence is still valid, the applicant only has to take and pass a theoretical driving test. If the applicant’s licence has expired, he/she must also pass a practical driving exam before a Russian licence can be issued. Exams must normally be taken in Russian.
If you do not have a driving licence, you can obtain one in Moscow. However, in order to do so, you must be fluent in Russian: the theoretical and practical instruction is conducted in Russian. Some schools may allow you to bring an interpreter, but this may be difficult. Before enrolling in a local driving school, make sure that the school is recognized by the GIBDD and will register the students for the state driving exam. Getting a driving licence in Moscow is still quite affordable when compared to the West.
Obtaining a first-time driving licence in Russia involves enrolling in a local driving school, passing a medical test, going through two months of theoretical and practical driving instruction, and taking (passing) state driving exams. The exam is the same for both Russian nationals and foreigners, but foreigners have to take the exam in a different place.
If you are involved in an accident and there is serious damage to your or the other side vehicle(s) and/or people are injured, stay right where the accident took place – even if you are in the middle of a busy intersection – and wait for a GIBDD officer. You will either have to call the GIBDD yourself (possible only if you have mobile phone and you speak Russian) or ask somebody else (e.g. the other driver involved in the accident, your office, your friend to call them. Do not expect the GIBDD officers to speak English.
To report an accident, call the police at 02 and provide them with all details of the accident (location, number and kind of vehicles involved, injuries, etc.) If necessary, call an ambulance at 03. Remember that leaving the site of an accident in which someone was injured is a criminal offense.
If the damage is small, you may settle the dispute with the other involved party on the spot. Many people prefer doing so as filling a police report even for a traffic accident can be a major nuisance in terms of lost time and formalities. Bear in mind that repairing a foreign car in Moscow can be expensive. If the damage is extensive, you must wait for the GIBDD. If you leave the scene of the accident without a detailed, written report from traffic police, you will have no chance of recovering money for damages to your and other side vehicle from your insurance company.
If you decide to involve the GIBDD in an accident, they will draw up a detailed accident report that will include sketch of the scene. If you do not speak/read/understand Russian, call your office and ask for an interpreter to be sent to the site of the accident as soon as possible. You will be asked to sign the accident report, but you should not do so if you do not understand what it says; you will need it for your insurance company. It may be wise to very discreetly take down the officer’s name and badge number.
Note that it can take a long time for the GIBDD to arrive at the scene of an accident – even if the accident is causing major traffic problems. Provided that no personal injuries were reported, the officers often don’t seem to in a hurry. However, once they arrive, they are usually quite good at handling the situation. If you are hit by another car and that car drives off, do not chase it. Stay, call the police, and file the report. Disputes over accidents have to be settled in court.
On July 1st, 2003, mandatory car insurance was introduced in Russia. According to this new law, every car owner must have an insurance policy certifying that he/she is insured against third-party liability. However, as this mandatory insurance policy only provides coverage up to certain mount and does not include coverage for car theft and vandalism, it is advisable to purchase additional (voluntary) insurance. Ideally, you should purchase both mandatory and voluntary insurance through the same company.
Most cars in Moscow have white licence plates with black letters. Red licence plates with white numbers and letters are reserved for diplomatic cars. A “CD” on such a licence plate stands for “Chef de Mission Diplomatique”, a “D” for diplomat, and a “T” for “Trade”. Blue licence plates with white numbers and letters are reserved for Russian officials and the police.
Moscow heavily suffers from the traffic jams. Many people have even missed their flights because they didn’t plan on getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. Major traffic jams occur regularly on all larger thoroughfares leading into and out Moscow, as well as on the ring road mentioned above. Traffic is particularly heavy going into town on weekday mornings and to the suburbs on weekday afternoons and evenings. The Garden Ring (Sadovoe Kol’tso) suffers from traffic jams all day long, although they are usually worse from about 8.30 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. and then again from about 4.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. on weekdays.
Late spring to mid-autumn is dacha season in Russia. The outbound dacha traffic starts early Friday afternoon and can last well into Saturday morning, with the return traffic starting Sunday afternoon and often lasting into the late night. Monday mornings are also problematic during this season as many people go to work straight from their dachas, therefore, if you live on or along one of the large highways leading into/out of Moscow, expect to face this problem on a weekly basis for about five months every year.
Another problem related to the dacha season are the so-called “podsnezhniki”. These are drivers who do not touch their cars all winter long. The word means “snow-covered” and stems from the fact that many drivers leave their cars outside covered by snow throughout the winter. These drivers and their cars can be a traffic hazard because the cars are old and because many of these people do not drive at least half the year and are out of practice come spring.
Parking is another consideration if you own a car. Since cars can be the target of break-ins in Moscow, it is important to have a secure parking space, which can be very difficult, particularly if you live in downtown Moscow. Many streets and lanes are very narrow, and you may not be able to park your car in front of or in the yard of your residential building, or – for that matter – your office. Things get worse in winter when snow piles up on the sides of the street.
Some apartment buildings have a small parking lot where parking spaces are allotted for tenants. If possible, negotiate the parking space at the same time you negotiate your apartment lease. Some of the newer buildings have underground garages; others have guarded yards. Residential complexes, such as Pokrovsky Hills and Rosinka, have private garages.
Buying a Car
Unless you are a fully accredited foreign diplomat, it is very difficult and expensive to import a car to Russia. In many cases your moving company will not be able to assist with the import customs clearance of your car, and you will have to pay very steep import duties.
If you can not live without a car, you can purchase one in Moscow. However, several difficulties are involved in this. If you have a foreign passport and want to buy a car, you can register the car in your name, but you will have to de-and re-register it each time you receive a new Russian visa. The other option is to register the car in a Russian friend or colleague’s name and then have that person provide you with a general Power of Attorney allowing you to drive and sell your car.
You can either purchase a new car or a used vehicle. In either case make sure you purchase the car from a reputable car dealership. If you want to purchase a used car from a private individual, have it checked very thoroughly at a good car service station before buying it.
Also keep in mind that it will be difficult for you to re-export a car from Russia (unless you are a fully accredited foreign diplomat).
If the car is registered in another’s person’s name, you will first have to sign a sale contract with that person (so that you can prove that the car is actually ours). You must then re-register the car in your name and de-register it before it can be exported from Russia. You will also have to carefully check what the requirements for the import of motor vehicles in your destination country are.
Before winter arrives, have your car protected with extra undercoating and fitted with heavy-duty batteries, heavy-duty shock absorbers, and winter tires. Do not wait until the first snow – that’s when most drivers remember and lines at service stations will be very long. Have your car checked on a regular basis. A number of good car maintenance services are available in Moscow. Many of them specialize in one or more vehicle brands (e.g., Volkswagen or BMW).
A gas station is called a “avtozapravka” or “A Ze Es” for short. Gas stations are almost not-existent in the city center, particularly within the confines of the Garden Ring. Therefore, if you live in the city center, make sure you know where the closest gas stations are located. You should only fill up at reputable gas stations, such as BP (British Petroleum), TNK (Tyumen Oil Company), Yukos, or Lukoil.
The price for petrol in Russia is still significantly lower than in Western Europe and North America. Most Russian cars run on 92 or 95 petrol; foreign cars normally run on 95. Since there has been an increase of Russians driving foreign cars, this type of higher-octane petrol is readily available.
All cars on the road in Russia have to undergo a regular technical inspection, called a “tekhosmotr” in Russian. Currently, cars that are under five years old have to be inspected every two years; cars that are over five year old have to be examined once a year. The last number on your car’s licence plate indicates the month in which your car must undergo the inspection. For example, if the last number is a 9, your technical inspection will be due in September.
The process is a bit complicated for people who do not speak Russian. Unless you know exactly what needs to be done, ask a driver of someone from your office to help you. If your car has passed all tests successfully, you will be issued a plastic technical inspection card, called a “talon tekhosmotra”. Whoever is driving the car must carry this document with him/her at all times – along with all other necessary documents. Failure to undergo the technical inspection and/or not having the card may result in confiscation of your car or at least a heavy fine.
If you are caught driving while intoxicated; refuse to take an alcohol test; cannot produce your driving licence, your car registration papers, the documents confirming ownership of the car, or a valid Power Attorney; have illegally stopped or parked your car in a non-stopping and non-parking zone; or if your car has faulty brakes or a faulty steering system, traffic police can impound and tow your car. If your car is towed, you will have to pay a fine for the offence you have committed; pay for the towing costs; and pay an hourly fees for the time your car was impounded. These costs can amount to 10,000 Rbs or more very easily, and you will need cash to pay – no cards are accepted and there are no ATMs at the “Special Car Park”. If you are not present when the car is towed, you may find it very difficult to retrieve/find it later.
Driving in Moscow in winter can be a tricky and dangerous affair, especially if you are not used to such weather conditions. If you have never driven on snow, slush, ice, you may want to take a few driving lessons with an experienced driver before hitting the roads on your own. Due to huge piles of snow lining the sides of streets and yards, parking in winter is even more difficult than in summer months. Whereas a street may have two lanes, it may be reduced to one lane in winter, again because of the snow. Driving through small streets in the center can become very difficult, and cars going in opposite directions often get stuck because nobody is willing to back up.
Things to keep in your car during winter include a good heavy-duty snowbrush, a defroster for locks, and a roll of paper towels in case condensation builds up on the windows inside the car. You should also carry an extra canister of anti-freeze liquid in your trunk at all times.
Do’s on the Roads
Do carry all required documents with you (along with your passport, visa, and migration card). Traffic police can make stop you anytime to check your documents. You are obliged to carry the original documents with you at all times – photocopies are not acceptable.
Do make sure that you have a first-aid-kit (including a sterile syringe, which is not mandatory), a fire extinguisher, and a sign for emergencies in your car. The traffic police can fine you if you fail to produce any of these during a roadside check.
Do drive on the right hand side of the road. This takes some getting used to when you are arriving from a country where driving is on the left.
Do drive defensively.
Do adhere to the speed limits of 60 km/h (37mph) in built-up areas and 90 km/h (55 mph) elsewhere.
Do fasten your seatbelts at all times. While regularly ignore buckling up is mandatory in Russia, you can be fined for not wearing a seatbelt. You can also be fined if your passengers are not wearing seatbelts.
Do turn your headlights when going through a tunnel.
Do look out for potholes – they can cause serious damage to your car. They may also cause drivers to weave dangerously in attempt to prevent damage to their cars.
Do stop when the GIBDD (traffic police) motions you to do so. (This can be a patrol car, but more usually a pedestrian officer at the roadside with a baton). They can stop you just to check your documents. Failure to stop can have very serious consequences, including being fired upon by the officers (who have the right to do so).
Do watch where you park in the center of town. Cars may be towed away or clamped.
Do be careful where you leave your car at night – break-ins do happen. Do not leave anything lying around the car. Put things that must stay in your car into the trunk.
Do make sure that your car is properly insured through a reputable insurance company. Carrying the Insurance Certificate with you at all times is a legal requirement.
Do remain flexible.
Do keep your license plate clean – you can be fined for a dirty/illegible license plate.
Do Not’s on the Road
Don’t drink and drive! Russia has a 0.3 pro mil in blood (0.15 with a breathalyzer test) alcohol policy for drivers and police are very strict about this. The GIBDD has the right to check your blood alcohol level on the spot. 0.3 pro mil of alcohol is about one bottle of light beer, but remember that alcohol effect different people in a different way. The more well-grown the person is, the faster alcohol digests. So, you never know if you have exceeded the norm or not. It is better not risk.
Don’t turn left or do a u-turn unless this is clearly specified. You must drive until the next U-turn sign, no matter how far it is, to turn around, then come back and make the right turn.
Don’t ever cross a solid double white line – you can have your driving license revoked for several years for doing so.
Don’t turn right on a red light – this is illegal in Russia.
Do not allow children under the age of 12 to travel in the front seat.
When approaching circulatories (“roundabouts”) incoming traffic has priority over cars already on the circulatory, who must give way to them. This is a considerable difference to many other countries, so take note.