Goodbye to right-hand drive cars?
Armenia has banned the import of right-hand drive vehicles. The main reason behind the authorities’ argument is road safety. However, drivers do not agree with the move and have long protested the government’s plans. In Georgia, another plan has been thought up, and instead of banning the import of such vehicles, the import tax has been increased three fold.
What do drivers in Georgia and Armenia like about right-hand drive vehicles and just how reasonable is it to ban such cars? JAMnews correspondents from Yerevan and Tbilisi looked into the matter.
For right-hand drive and democracy
Thirty-year-old Ara Melikjanyan has been driving for 12 years, of which he spend the last three years driving a right-hand drive car. The problems that drivers of such cars have recently encountered forced Ara to go out into the streets with thousands of other drivers to protest against the government’s plans to ban right-hand drive vehicles.
“We fought against the ban on importing right-hand drive vehicles. However, at the time it was also a fight against a violation of constitutional rights. In our country, such bans and rights violations make people resort to their ‘plan B’, immigration. Those who came out against the ban say: ‘We’ll stay in Armenia and we will fight for our rights’,” says Ara.
It all started back in the beginning of 2017 when the government announced its plan to temporarily ban the import of right-hand drive cars starting on 1 April 2017. It was then suggested that their use on the streets would also be banned.
Official data says that there are 32 000 right-hand drive vehicles in Armenia. However, opponents of the project say there are about 100 000:
“The problem is that four or five years ago, when you brought your car in for registration, they didn’t record whether the vehicle was right-hand drive or left-hand drive. In such conditions the government’s figures can’t be reliable,” explains Ara.
The Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technology pointed out that, as an example of why such vehicles should be banned, right-hand drive vehicles are often involved in road accidents. However, the traffic police do not have data concerning ratios of such accidents.
“After we told the minister that there are no statistics on such accidents – that is, data that could be a real basis for such statements – they came up with some numbers overnight. They said that the data had been provided by insurance companies. If this is true, then there’s another question here: why did the insurance companies give the personal data of drivers to a third-party? Even if it is the government of Armenia … what right did they have?” Ara says.
Several weeks of fighting and discussions lead to the project being referred back for further development. As a result, the point that would have banned the sale of right-hand drive vehicles was taken out. According to the new document, after 1 April the import of right-hand drive vehicles will be forbidden, but all vehicles acquired before that date will be legal to use on Armenia’s roads and eligible for registry – which gives the owner the right to sell the car if necessary.
However, Ara Melikjanyan says that the problem still hasn’t been solved, and that activists are continuing to fight:
“Here we have three very serious problems in front of us. First of all, we believe that the state has established an unfair time allotment – that is 1 April. There are people who bought cars back in September/October last year but their vehicles may not arrive in time. According to the data of one shipping company, they won’t be able to get the 900 vehicles [which Armenians have purchased abroad] to Armenia before the time is up. What will the buyers do?
“The second problem is even more serious. Right-hand drive cars are generally from Japan and are significantly cheaper. People who have saved up for years in order to buy a car in order to, for example, drive a taxi so as to make a living, now face an enormous problem. For that price, at best, they can hope to buy a Russian Lada, which does not satisfy any safety requirements whatsoever,” says Ara.
The third problem that activists brought to the attention of the government concerns environmentally friendly transport.
“We suggest that the ban exclude environmentally friendly cars such as hybrids or cars with electric motors. Their import and use will help solve a lot of environmental problems. Japan is a leading manufacturer in this regard but Japan doesn’t produce left-hand drive cars. As an example: a Japanese car with an electric motor costs about 4 500 dollars, while the same kind of car in the US costs about 21 000,” says Ara.
Opponents of the project hope that their suggestions will be considered and that the government will abide by democratic principles while making its decision.
Less right-hand drive cars but more older vehicles
Last year Georgia passed a law that tripled the import tax on right-hand drive vehicles. Experts claim that the government’s expectations to decrease the kinds of cars one sees on the streets in Georgia were not fulfilled.
An initiative to ban right-hand drive vehicles was put forward back in 2015 by the Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Mgebrishvili. The then-Prime Minister of the country, Irakli Garibashvili, thanked the minister. However, later the government changed its mind and, instead of a complete ban on the import of right-hand drive vehicles, it altered their import tax bracket.
According to changes made to the country’s tax code [effective as of 1 January 2017], the customs fees on cars older than six years were raised and customs fees for right-hand drive vehicles were tripled.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs says that the main aim of the changes to the tax code was to encourage the import of new cars into Georgia and, as a consequence, increase road safety conditions.
“According to the governments’ calculations, the import of relatively old cars should decrease. Naturally, those who had planned on buying a 14-year-old car and then working as a taxi driver were disappointed,” stated the then Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Shalva Khutsishvili.
Official data says that since 2007, the number of registered automobiles in Georgia has practically doubled, and in 2016 there were a total of 1 126 470 registered vehicles. The Ministry of Internal Affairs said that almost half of these cars (46%) were over 20 years old and only 3.6% of the country’s automobiles were less than than six years old.
The import of right-hand drive vehicles made up 38.9% of all vehicles imported into Georgia.
The authorities ascribed the price hike in customs dues for right-hand drive vehicles to the sharp increase in their popularity, and that in 5-7 years the number of right-hand and left-hand drive vehicles could be about equal. This would make for some very serious problems in regulating traffic and road safety.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs says that right-hand drive cars are more at risk for accidents because the roads are intended for left-hand drive vehicles; risks are higher when letting passengers out, driving without illuminated headlights at night and in other circumstances. However, the authorities did not supply any data to back up their claims.
In 2017, 66 479 vehicles were imported to Georgia, of which 14 578 were right-hand drive, or 21.9%. In comparison to 2016, the import of right-hand drive vehicles decreased by 17%.
Vaso Urushadze, the executive director of platform Hub Georgia, which specialises in transport issues, says that the hopes of the government to see newer cars on the roads were not fulfilled, and because of the socio-economic situation of the population there is still a demand for 10-20 year old cars.
“A population which does not live in abundance does not acquire new cars. Because of the increase in customs dues for right-hand drive vehicles, we came against the problem that instead of Japanese cars in good technical condition, people have started bringing in left-hand drive cars from the US and Europe that have seen more use. In comparison with Japanese cars, they require more fuel and cause more pollution. And such cars are less likely to meet standards during technical inspections than Japanese cars,” says Urushadze.