Georgia may have reformed its police, rebooted its electricity supplies and cracked down on tax dodgers, but when it comes to Georgian drivers, the country faces of one its biggest reform challenges yet.Georgia leads the South Caucasus in reported road traffic accidents. A person is injured every hour in a traffic-related accident, while one death occurs every 18 hours, according to a study released by the Safe Driving Association, a Georgian non-governmental organization. The World Health Organization puts the number of fatalities at 16.8 per 100,000 people each year (compared with Azerbaijan at 13 and Armenia at 13.9).On August 1, new traffic laws that double fines will come into force in an effort to make Georgian roads safer, but some feel that more must be done to make the roads more secure for motorists and pedestrians alike.Updating Soviet-era road design to handle larger numbers of cars is the most expensive reform goal. As the economy has improved, the number of registered passenger cars in Georgia has more than doubled, according to the Partnership for Road Safety – from 256,153 in 2004 to 685,980 in 2009. “We have never had so many cars. The infrastructure is not ready for so many cars,” commented Safe Driving Association Director David Meskhisvili, who also works for the Tbilisi Mayor’s Office.President Mikheil Saakashvili has made road development a government priority and announced on July 14 that 452 million lari ($245 million) would be spent on road projects in 2010.Skeptics argue that this will only make it easier for people to drive more recklessly unless something is done to address poor Georgian driving habits.A significant part of the problem is that many people never received proper instruction about how to drive, explained Georgian Automobile Association Executive Director Melvud Meladze.“During communism, there were driver’s safety lessons in school. After independence, nobody was taught. From 1990 to 2003, you could buy a license for a hundred dollars without ever taking a test,” Meladze said. “You can [still] even open your own driving school without qualifications,” he added.To receive a license, today’s candidate drivers take both a written and practical exam, but the driving test is performed on a closed course without traffic.Aside from a lack of training, Meladze and other driver safety advocates blame what they term “Georgian mentality.”“Georgians don’t like rules. Everyone knows best and believes others must get out of their way,” Meladze noted. “And there are faster cars available nowadays,” he added.The Safe Drivers’ Association’s Meskhishvili reports that his NGO found that 75 percent of Georgian drivers do not observe road signs; 23 percent admit they violate traffic laws during traffic jams and 18 percent do so when they are “in a hurry.”The national romance with speed and showy cars also plays a role. To hallmark the opening of a new highway to Tbilisi, for instance, Saakashvili and bodyguards strapped themselves into Formula-3 race cars and sped down the road.Photos of the Georgian president -- and his wife, Sandra Roelofs, an active road safety campaigner -- wearing seat belts have also been used to encourage Georgians to buckle up, however.In June 2005, lawmakers passed a seat belt law for highways, yet provided an exemption for urban areas; supposedly because it is believed that people drive more slowly in cities. A study by James Madison University in the United States, though, found that more than half of all injury-producing motor vehicle crashes involve speeds under 64 kph (40 mph).“I always wear a seatbelt in the city because everybody drives fast,” commented Tbilisi driving instructor David Shotaze. “Everywhere else in the world you have to. You should here, too.” To reinforce that point, the government on August 1 will double the penalty for not wearing a seatbelt on highways from 20 to 40 lari (about $21.74).While there is talk that lawmakers may amend the seatbelt law in the autumn parliamentary session to make seat belts mandatory in cities, there is no mention yet of a child seat law, in keeping with European Union regulations.Children under 12 are prohibited from sitting in the front seat, yet Georgian children are often seen unrestrained in both back and front seats, or sitting in their father’s lap behind the wheel.Meskhishvili asserts that the government has not passed a child restraint law because child restraint seats are too expensive; prices generally start at about 150 laris (about $81.51).Mandatory car insurance and automobile inspection have also been waived. Car inspection was required under ex-President Eduard Shevardnadze, yet because the procedure was so corrupt and dysfunctional, Saakashvili eliminated the entire department.“Maybe 50 to 60 percent of the cars on the road would not pass inspection. Poor people cannot afford to improve their cars so improvements must be done one step at a time,” Meskhishvili said.One area of driver’s safety the government is tackling head-on is drunk driving. Georgia has a zero-tolerance blood alcohol concentration level and police need no probable cause to stop a car. The fine for first-time offenders has been raised from 150 to 200 lari ($81-$108), while second-time offenders will have their driver’s license revoked for one year. The penalty for a third offense is 90 days in jail. Eka Laliashvili, director of the Partnership for Road Safety, sees this as a positive step forward, but insists what is needed most is an active public awareness campaign.“Ten, 15 years ago, nobody ever told us it’s dangerous to not wear a seatbelt . . .” Laliashvili said. “You have to change people’s mentality and this takes time, for the public and policymakers, too . . .”
Paul Rimple is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.