Idiots, roads and traffic cops

Idiots, roads and traffic cops: "

There’s a well-known phrase that people can use to complain about driving in Russia: В России две беды – дураки и дороги. (Russia has two problems – roads and idiots). It’s one of those sayings that’s so widespread people don’t always complete it. You can just say ‘в России две беды’ and shake your head. One insurance agency is using this to their advantage; their new ad campaign proclaims: В России две беды – бережем от обоих. (Russia has two problems – we’ll protect you from both of them.)

The most painful aspect of these problems in Moscow, as we know all too well, is traffic jams (пробки). The word пробка also means cork or stopper for a bottle, so you can see how it came to be used in this context. When you get stuck in a traffic jam, you can use the phrase ‘застрять в пробке’, as in: Я застряла в пробке, приеду, как только смогу. (I got stuck in traffic; I’ll be there as soon as I can.) Drivers can also say that they’re ‘standing’ in a jam, as in “traffic is at a standstill” or ‘стоять в пробке’. If you ever listen to ‘Авторадио’, for example, you hear commuters calling in to report: Тверская плотно стоит. (There’s bumper-to-bumper traffic on Tverskaya.) Or even: Весь город стоит. (The whole city is gridlocked.)

This is also the time for dodging in and out among the different lanes (полоса). If you want to talk about passing someone, you can use the verb обгонять: Было однополосное движение, и я полчаса не мог обогнать грузовик. (I was on a one-lane road, trying to pass this truck for half an hour.) There is a noun, обгон, formed from this verb. So if you go into the lane for oncoming traffic, it can be described as обгон по встречке. Встречка is a colloquial way of saying встречная полоса.

When traffic is heavy, drivers start to get rude – Russians also use a verb meaning ‘to cut off’ when a car switches suddenly into the lane in front of them – подрезать. For example, a recent bus crash in Volgograd was in the news because a police officer was allegedly at fault: В час пик автобус на полном ходу врезался в столб…Неофициальная [версия] – машину с пассажирами подрезал сотрудник ГАИ. (A bus crashed into a pole at full speed during rush hour… The unofficial version is that the bus carrying passengers was cut off by a member of the traffic police.) This example has another verb with the same root as подрезать; in this context, врезаться, which can also mean ‘to cut into’, is used in its colloquial meaning of crashing or ramming into something.

Speeding is a way of life in stressful driving situations such as these, and few are the Moscow drivers who obey the speed limit (соблюдать скоростной режим).
They thus run the risk of getting ticketed for speeding (штраф за превышение скорости). There are several interesting aspects of traffic cops’ speech in these situations. For one thing, when they address you by your name and patronymic, you know the situation is serious. After they ask for your licence, they might start out with something like: Так, Иван Михайлович, почему нарушаем? (So, Ivan Mikhailovich, why were you speeding/otherwise breaking the law?) When you break the law, you нарушаешь закон.

Another interesting aspect of the sentence above is the use of the first-person plural. It’s similar to the way that a teacher might talk to a disobedient student: Ну что, Юлия, почему не делаем домашнее задание? (Now, Yulia, why haven’t we been doing our homework?)
Finally, there is the matter of negotiating a fine of, say, a less than official nature.

It’s interesting to hear the way people offer officials bribes, because of the delicate balance between making your intent clear and stating too plainly that you are inviting the authority figure in question to break the law. For example, the cop, in this case the гаишник (from ГАИ, the traffic police), says: Вы пересекли двойную сплошную; будем составлять протокол. (You crossed the double lines; I’m going to write you up.) At this point, the driver nervously replies: Может быть, договоримся на месте? (Maybe we could reach an agreement here?)

But occasionally drivers run into a cop who doesn’t approve of these shenanigans. A former colleague of mine once tried to offer some money fairly directly to an officer, and he replied angrily: Почему вы предлагаете деньги? Я вам взаймы не давал. (Why are you offering me money? I didn’t lend you any.) Things went downhill from there.

Sara Buzadzhi is a Moscow-based translator and English teacher.

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