A lot of Ladas and Road Safety (in Azerbaijan)
In Azerbaijan, there are a lot of Ladas - and the concentration increases shortly after exiting the Baku city limits. Most are obvious Soviet-era legacies, with forty, fifty, and even sixty year old cars still trucking along the magistral (main highway). These historical gems include Volgas, Moschovichs and Ladas - the most abundant model being the "Zhiguli" (in Cyrillic: Жигули. The "Ж" or "Zh" is pronounced with the "su" sound in pleasure). These small, inexpensive, easy to fix cars (with parts easily attained), make up the vast majority of cars in Azerbaijan. Even still, popular European luxury cars are on the rise - nearly all the police cars, for instance, are BMW - and Mercedes, Ferrari, Jaguar, Audi, Lexus and the like are not uncommon sights even 400 km from the capital. As one of my local, wealthier friends told me, buying a fancy European car is a milestone in a (wealthy) man's life - a sign that you've arrived.
Not a month ago, while in Baku, a good friend of mine was giving me the rundown of "car lingo" and this was the first time I'd ever heard the word "Zhiguli" - my western counterparts called them all Ladas. Specifically, the Zhiguli is a particular era of Lada, which covers the early 60's to about the early 90's within the USSR. The Soviet manufacturer AvtoVAZ made a deal with the Italian company Fiat for the base model that became the Zhiguli - small, compact, stripped of most luxuries - a true "people's car" - but was built like a tank, with hefty suspension. Notorious for breaking down, but valued for being easily fixed. The different types or years of Zhiguli are known colloquially by different numbers with "one" and "eleven" being earlier cars, and "five," "six," and "seven" being later models.
During the 50s and 60s there was considerable debate in the Soviet Union over the purpose and meaning of personal car ownership. Specifically, was personal mobility a right, a sign of development and a necessity, or would it further the cause of individualism, show status and inequality and (pardon the pun) drive people apart. During the 60s personal cars in the Soviet Union increased drastically, where as before manufacturing focused on vehicles that could haul a load (such as the Kamaz).
In Azerbaijan you will find a range of emotions toward Ladas. One of my cab drivers told me of his 30 year love affair with his Zhiguli, which always got the job done. Another time while attempting to drive to a somewhat isolated town in the mountains of Sheki in a newer Opel SUV, Zhigulis rocketed passed us on the washed out road, and steep dirt trails. Not everyone loves them, though. Earlier this year, regulation banned the import of "sub-standard" cars - specifically targeting the Zhiguli. More recently, new legislation will also make it near impossible to register Zhigulis - due to the fact they don't have airbags and anti-lock brakes.
A friend of mine informed me that the real reason they are trying to ban the Zhiguli is because of "avtoş" culture. This was later confirmed by another friend who said that "avtosh" particularly love the lightweight "seven" model, and they are easy to modify. To make the car "dance," for instance, they take the springs out of the 4X4 Niva, and replace the seven's suspension. This was the first time I'd heard the word "avtosh" - slang for the primarily young (18-22 year old) boys in Azerbaijan (primarily Baku) who push cars to the limits. A standard trick would be to drive the car on two wheels - preferably with "Seni sevirəm" (I love you) written in lights on the undercarriage - or simply to race around the maze of streets in the capitol.
Others feel that the recent changes in registration directly target the lower classes in Azerbaijan, as Zhiguli is what they can afford. Looking at a few snippets surrounding the debate (in addition to conversations I've had) would indicate that concepts of social class permeate car culture in Azerbaijan. For instance, a spokesman for the national traffic police addressed the avtosh problem, by saying: “Most of those involved are middle-class, and not the children of oligarchs, as people often say." When discussing the ban on Zhiguli in general, Vice speaker of Parliament said "I call Zhiguli cars the killers which are mainly used by drivers with low social status, not knowing the rules of the road." Overall, it seems as though the current administration is taking yet another step toward cleansing the "tarnished" alleyways of Azerbaijan - and appealing to the "generalized elite" of the world.
Early on, the security liaison for the US Embassy informed us that driving was the most dangerous part of Azerbaijan - to sink the point home he showed us YouTube clips of people getting hit by cars. As I previously worked on a research project involving danger on the roads (specifically DUIs in Montana), I decided to run the numbers and see if Azerbaijan was indeed full of unsafe roads.
According to a recent Men's Health article, Houston has some of the most dangerous drivers - it also has similar population and density to Baku, so I used it as a comparison. You will see that Azerbaijan as a whole is equal to Texas, and close to the US, but Baku itself (at least in 2009) is a higher than all the others at 18 deaths per 100,000 people. This is still lower than he state of Alabama in 2012, which according to a recent article, had an estimated 21.7 deaths per 100,000 people. The high numbers in Baku suggests that the roads are safer elsewhere in the country (where the majority of Zhigulis are driven) - in fact on par with the US.
Despite my (highly scientific!) analysis, it doesn't remove that fact that - as a foreigner - I was subjectively uncomfortable around the roads for several months into my stay in Azerbaijan. In addition to my discomfort, the drivers also earned a great deal of my respect. In Montana we often quip "road laws are mere suggestions," but that is usually because the only witnesses are cows and deer. Here drivers tend to be loose when it comes to the formal laws, but seem to speak their own car-language when negotiating order on the roads. Using lights, horns, the cars position - and the unwritten rules of the road - people are able to safely complete the vast majority of trips.
Perhaps far more interesting (to me), is the more inter-subjective side of driving - the fact that drivers and pedestrians are able to negotiate space, and despite the lack of formal rules - or rather the lack of respect for those formal rules - order emerges. Being someone who grew up around cars, and with many miles under my belt, I am hyper-aware when drivers do things - often very minute things - that I would do differently. (And somehow they always manage to find extra space, where I see none.) This made me realize that driving skills are perhaps less about handling your car, and more about reacting to everyone else's driving. But alas, that is a big topic that I will perhaps broach elsewhere.