I know, it's not my place. Still.
I was hanging out with my friend Aleksei the other night when out of the blue he said, "Remember Andryusha?"
"Which Andryusha? The one who lived with you while he was looking for an apartment this spring?"
"He died last week."
"Are you serious?!?"
"Yeah. They had his funeral two days ago."
"Car accident. There was a drunk driver, and he had been drinking too, and the other guy swerved and he swerved to miss him and slammed into a pole. It was the day Russia beat the Netherlands."
"That's terrible! I don't even know what to say!"
"I know. I was totally shocked when I found out, too. The worst part is, he was just unlucky. I was in an accident on the highway, we were going 100 kph and the other people were too, and I got out with nothing but a scratch on my leg. But he died. If his car had had airbags, he'd probably still be alive. (pause) And if he'd been wearing a seatbelt, I'm positive he'd have made it."
I only met Andrei once or twice, but it was still shocking to be blindsided by that. It's hard to grasp how someone who was totally alive the last time you saw him, who had, as they say, his whole life in front of him (he was 22), could have suddenly just ceased to exist. And I feel terrible for him, for having his life cut so short, and for his family and friends. But the worst part is that this kind of stupid crap happens all too often in Russia. Almost 40,000 Russians a year die in traffic accidents. That needs to change. I once looked up the number for the U.S. and I believe it's somewhat similar, but we've got more than twice Russia's population, and I'm sure our number of cars per capita is much, much higher.
So many Russians, especially men, just don't wear seatbelts. Ever. How many taxi drivers have I watched put on their seatbelt as we approach the customs checkpoint at the edge of town and then unfasten it again as soon as we're past? Seriously, guys. The seatbelt isn't that uncomfortable, and the highway from Taganrog to Rostov in most places doesn't even have a center line or clearly defined shoulders. What's the point of risking it?
I won't even get into the traffic laws and people's tendency to follow them, except to say that it's one thing about Russia that most Western visitors seem to find legitimately shocking. I've been in cars that have hit 100 kph on city streets, 200 meters from a stop sign. Why? Because it's badass to drive that way, and if you get caught, you can give the policeman a hundred rubles and get off scot-free. (For the record, I do not ride with people who drive that way more than once.)
Judging by my friends and acquaintances, drunk driving isn't quite as common in Russia as I originally believed, but it's certainly not nearly as actively stigmatized as it is in the U.S. You can lay the blame on Andrei for driving under the influence – or for not wearing a seatbelt, for that matter, but how many of us would be doing the same thing if they hadn't beaten it into us how dangerous and stupid it is? We are lucky, my friends. They teach us to wear our seatbelts and they punish us when we do stupid things on the road. They sell us cars with airbags in them. They keep our roads in relatively safe condition. That's not what Aleksei meant when he said Andryusha was "just unlucky," but that's how I take it.