NGOs Inspect Driving Schools

NGOs Inspect Driving Schools

Published: November 23, 2011 (Issue # 1684)

With more than 370 people having been killed on the roads of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Oblast during the past six months, drivers’ qualifications are being scrutinized as a reason for the staggering numbers of casualties.

It is no secret that a driving license can be illegally purchased in Russia, and is something of a bargain at about 200 euros. “Russia is one big ‘pay as you go’ deal,” is a common joke among the country’s drivers when talking about buying their way out of trouble on the road after violating the rules.

At the same time, according to research conducted this month by a group of local NGOs, the standards of teaching at the city’s driving schools are alarmingly low. Worse, some of them do not even hold a teaching license and are therefore not qualified to be operating as driving instructors.

Local pressure groups have sent a petition to City Governor Georgy Poltavchenko asking him to organize a series of raids and checks at the city’s driving schools and bring some order into what appears to have become a semi-legal and profitable business that results in the deaths of hundreds of people every year.

“We have been swamped by complaints from local residents about driving schools: That the students don’t have enough lessons, the schools won’t give them a receipt, and change the conditions of the lessons as they please and without notice,” said Mikhail Romanov, head of the Northern Capital foundation, which took part in the independent monitoring of local driving schools.

Romanov was speaking at a roundtable devoted to road safety organized by RIA-Novosti news agency earlier this month. “What skills can people learn amid such chaos? What sort of responsibility do these schools have?”

According to Romanov, at least 50 St. Petersburg driving schools — all checked by his foundation in cooperation with the Transport Education of the Nation and Liberty of Choice non-governmental organizations — were found to have problems. That is nearly half of all the driving schools registered in the city.

“Some of them do not have any license at all, while others are offering services far beyond those they are licensed to,’ said Romanov.

To draw the attention of city officials to the death toll on the roads of Russia’s second biggest city, Alexander Kholodov, a representative of the Liberty of Choice pressure group, has organized a “Memorial Day for Future Victims of Road Accidents.”

“Of course, there is a day for victims of road accidents, but we wanted to put emphasis on the future, because unfortunately, people continue to die as we speak,” Kholodov said. “What we did was to take some people from City Hall on a tour around some of the city’s most accident-prone crossings.”

The tour revealed that the authorities do not take residents’ complaints seriously, campaigners say. While locals submit piles of letters asking City Hall to install traffic lights at accident-prone crossings, their requests often gather dust in government offices. Even when a decision is made, it is usually months if not years before construction is begun.

“For example, according to official documents, new traffic lights have been installed at a crossing on Prospekt Kultury and approved by a state commission; when we arrived there, we saw that construction was not even finished,” said Kholodov.

In order to raise the standards of the city’s driving schools, pressure groups suggest compiling a blacklist of companies that cheat their clients. It is essential, Romanov said, that dishonest driving schools know they will face closure if accusations against them are proved.

There are 113 driving schools in St. Petersburg, of which 99 are private. Some of the schools were issued with licenses from other regions. A standard course normally takes two-and-a-half months and includes at least 50 hours of driving lessons and 100 hours of theory. The average cost of a course is about 35,000 rubles ($1,130).

The state monitoring of driving schools is often carried out without inspectors actually visiting them. The schools generally send the required documents to the authorities, the papers are checked, and the process ends there.

Under-qualified driving instructors are far from the only cause of Russia’s high incidence of fatal road accidents, however. Another problem that contributes to the high number of deaths on the country’s roads is poorly equipped ambulances. Paramedics often either arrive too late or are unable to render casualties all the aid they require at the scene or on the way to the hospital. Human rights advocates complain that on average, it takes more than two or even three hours before victims of traffic accidents start receiving emergency treatment at a hospital, and these several hours of waiting often cost people their lives.

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