Alcohol, speeding and corruption – Abkhazia’s terrifying road safety statistics
Fatal traffic accidents occur so regularly in Abkhazia that it has become commonplace to compare the situation on the roads and the number of people killed and injured to wartime.
Who is at fault, and what is to be done? We posed these two questions to officials and drivers.
The latest statistics from January-October 2018 indicate that there was:
• 120 road accidents;
• 42 deaths;
• 174 people who received serious injuries;
• 44,379 registered cases of driving violations.
• 1,437 people have died;
• 5,537 have been injured.
These figures sound even more tragic if you compare them with the population. There are only about 250,000 people in Abkhazia, of which a little more than half can theoretically operate a vehicle.
The most high-profile accident in recent times was the death of Prime Minister Gennadi Gagulia on 8 September 2018, when his car collided with another vehicle driven by a 22-year-old.
imur Chanba is 26 years old. He is a psychologist, has three jobs and gets around in a wheelchair.
He spent 21 days in a coma – even after he woke up, it took him a while to be able to speak again.
Every six months, he goes to Russia for treatment.
Why are road accidents so common in Abkhazia?
• On Swedish roads, 2.8 people die per 100,000;
• In the UK, that number rises to 2.9;
• 10.6 in the USA;
• 19 in Russia;
• 27-33 in Abkhazia.
One doesn’t have to look far to explain these numbers. Both the authorities and the public say the same thing: the absolute majority of drivers ignore the rules of the road and many of them go unpunished.
Alcohol, speeding and corruption
“I remember it was about two in the morning. Music was playing in the car and I was driving from Gagra. I had to be in Sukhum early in the morning. I don’t remember how, but I fell asleep. Just fell asleep at the wheel. I lost control and drove into the opposite lane…
“I learned all this when I woke up in the hospital. I remember saying to my father that if I killed someone, I no longer wanted to live. My father did not tell me at the time that the other driver had died,” Alan says.
In 2018, Alan was released after seven years in prison. He does not wonder how he will be able to cope – his outlook on life has changed dramatically.
A traffic police officer told JAMnews: “I would say that we simply do not have drivers who do not violate the rules of the road, and most of them do it almost continuously. The level of training in driving schools is ridiculously low. In the first six months of 2018, out of 1,020 examinees, only 356 people passed the exams.”
The issue of corruption in Abkhazia is in a world of its own.
One issue is that one can easily buy a driver’s license. Another is that people are often prevented from getting their free driver’s license by passing the exam as the law dictates.
Amine (ed. Name has been changed) is 29 years old.
Two years ago, she decided to get her driving license, but she was openly prevented from passing the test by the instructor.
“I decided not to give up, and came again. The instructor again failed me two more times. I asked what the matter was and why he was openly preventing me from passing the exam. He immediately named an amount. I didn’t pay, so I still don’t have a license,” Amine said.
Another problem that stems from corruption is that in Abkhazia, those who cause accidents in which people die or are injured are rarely brought to court.
Instead, the parties usually simply agree among themselves. Relatives of the victims or the dead are paid an amount, and criminal cases are not initiated.
And a third problem is the ‘untouchables’ – officials of all ranks, their deputies and family members. Or just people ‘with connections’.
All of them easily manage to avoid punishment for violations.
These and other components of corruption have shaped the perception of impunity and permissiveness in society as norms.
“We had a guy at work who ran a man over. But there was no investigation. He managed to somehow agree on everything with the relatives of the deceased.” He told this story with pride.
“It seems to me that until every guilty party is punished regardless of their diplomatic and financial capabilities, human life on the road is worthless, and potential killers understand this,” said one driver with more than 30 years experience.
What is to be done?
Traffic police officers have their own recipe for how to treat this disease. They believe modern technology is the answer.
“If traffic control will be carried out by cameras on the roads and automatic systems, drivers will inevitably be punished, and corruption in the traffic police will literally disappear,” one traffic police officer said.
He believes that through the help of technology, it will be possible to deal with the “untouchables”:
“Everyone, including officials and influential people, will be recorded. And everyone will be forced to pay fines or go to court, since it is impossible to argue with a robot.”
Traffic police officers told JAMnews that cameras are needed at the very least on the road from Russia to the checkpoint on the border with Georgia on the Ingur River [ed. administrative border with Abkhazia].
Then the traffic police will be able to better control the roads in cities and the regions.
“In my 30 years on the roads, I have never had an accident. I don’t think it’s luck, it’s just hard work,” says one driver.
“It is almost impossible not to get into accidents in Abkhazia. If you’re not the cause of an accident, someone else will be. Maybe the main thing we forgot is that there are few of us. Anybody can end up on the wrong end of an accident – even a child.”
“Sometimes it seems to me that the disorder on roads is incurable. But then I remember that in critical situations we have always taken up the cause. And the current situation is very critical.”