Road Test: Experts say new traffic law shows little impact on driving and policing habits

Two months after the adoption of a new law on road traffic safety, motorists and road police equally complain of its being too general for proper application.

Before the Armenian parliament adopted the law in September, Armenia used the old Soviet traffic regulations. The current law sets the principles of related state policy and the rights and obligations of participants of drivers, pedestrians and police.

The law is aimed at preventing road accidents and preserving citizens’ lives, health and property, ensuring the rights and interests of citizens and the legal interests of the state through minimizing risks of road accidents.

During hearings organized by the British Embassy, the OSCE Yerevan Office and the “Achilles” Center for the Protection of Motorists’ Rights this week the participants agreed that the law does not regulate many situations occurring on the streets on a daily basis and therefore needs to be underpinned with appropriate sub-legislation and normative acts.

“Achilles” Center Head Eduard Hovhannisyan says that generally the law is applicable if certain gaps in it are bridged.

“Otherwise, it creates loopholes for corruption and leaves room for traffic police to interpret the law to their advantage,” he said. “It is not clear what legal acts a police officer is guided by in the streets as many situations are not described in the law.”

The government intends to draft a number of legal acts without which the law does not work properly only in the second half of 2006. Meanwhile, traffic police continue to apply old procedures, which sometimes are not in line with the new legislation.

Bad road policing causing bad driving has always been a subject of great controversy in Armenia. And corrupt traffic policemen letting dangerous drivers off the hook with a small payoff, or fining drivers without a good reason or sufficient proof are a widespread phenomenon.

A usual payoff for a stopped driver is 1,000 drams (about $2.25). But if a driver is stopped for a reason, like driving over the double lines, he can still usually escape punishment by bribing the inspector for 2,000 or more, depending on the gravity of his offense.

Despite the mentioned shortcomings, the new law for the first time clearly describes, for instance, cases when a traffic policeman is allowed to impound a car or stop a vehicle.

Yet, Inspector of the State Traffic Inspection’s Analytical Department Arman Chilingarian says that “as any other law this law is good only if it is observed properly.”

Chilingarian urged drivers to observe traffic rules in the first place and not to offer bribes to inspectors. “If you don’t bribe them, how can they demand a bribe from you?” he said.

The new law also stipulates fines for drivers and their passengers not wearing safety belts and also for pedestrians crossing the street in the wrong place.

However, according to Hovhannisyan, police rarely fine offenders for these violations, as the seatbelt fine is only 300 drams (about 75 cents) and violating pedestrians, simply, are not cited.

Meanwhile, many of the 200 people who have died in road accidents in Armenia since the beginning of this year could have survived by simply wearing safety belts.

The most common causes of road accidents (according to official statistics, more than 900 road accidents have been registered across Armenia this year) remain speed and drunk driving.

But Hovhannisyan, representing the interests of motorists, says police often abuse their powers in regards to suspected drunk drivers.

He says by law a police officer cannot certify a driver as being drunk by means of a breathalyzer, but only can have a reasonable suspicion and grounds for taking the suspect to a medical test.

“But this is not the way it is done in Armenia, as there is no clear description of the procedure in the law,” Hovhannisyan explains.

As to the unruly minibuses (a popular means of transportation for people in cities and towns across Armenia, and a lucrative business for their owners), police admit they are not competent to penalize their drivers who stop to pick up or leave passengers virtually anywhere, thus causing dangerous situations on the roads.

“There are no clearly designated bus stops in the city. If there are no stops, there can be no stopping outside a stop,” Head of the Control Department of the State Traffic Inspection Albert Soghomonyan explains. “We cannot accuse a driver who stops his vehicle outside a bus stop, as there are no corresponding signs for bus stops.”

The municipality promised to install about 900 bus stop signs in the city streets earlier this year. However, corresponding signs can be seen only in few places in Yerevan at present.