Georgia passed a law recently and it went into effect today: using seatbelts in cars is now mandatory! In honor of this law, I am going to write a little about Georgian driving.
Even before I arrived in Georgia, and several times during our week of training, I was told that under no circumstances was I to drive any vehicle while in Georgia. It's not that my U.S. driver's license is not valid here -- the danger is in the almost complete disregard for the rules of the road. When I heard that before I got here, I thought, "Really? I drove in Mexico - the driving can't be worse than there." Little did I know how wrong I was! As much of a risk-taker as I am, there is no way that I will drive here! It's absolutely insane. Being a pedestrian is bad enough - I'm actually glad that where I live there are more cows in the road than cars. The idea that a "pedestrian has the right of way" is a completely foreign concept even if the pedestrian is in a crosswalk and has a walk signal! If you want to cross the road, you have to become Frogger-personfied! Crossing a street that is multi-lane usually takes place one lane at a time - and you actually stand between the lanes of moving vehicles waiting for the cars in the next lane to go by. And so incrementally, you eventually end up on the other side of the road. The drivers assume that you are going to stop and wait for them, so they don't stop.
Being in a car is just about as terrifying as walking among them. I have learned to not look, otherwise my heart jumps into my throat every other minute. Lines on the road may or may not be there for aesthetic purposes only! They certainly do not contain the flow of traffic to one single direction. Cars mainly stick to the right lane, but if a car (or horse-pulled wagon or herd of sheep or family of pigs....) is going slowly, it can be passed at any point. A two-lane road can actually fit four vehicles. It doesn't matter if there is hill, a corner, or a cow in the middle of the road - passing happens anywhere and everywhere. I think that Georgians have an uncanny knack of knowing the exact size of their vehicles, because they come within fractions of an inch of another car or animal - and the brake pads here are first-rate! Cars can stop on a dime -- (Thank God!!) -- especially regarding the cows, because they don't move. They just stand in the road and look at the car. If the cows are walking down the road, they tend to swerve along toward the cars as if they were magnetically drawn to the metal. Several times I have been in a vehicle that has had to slam on the brakes to miss the attracted animal. Today I was sitting on the front porch at "cow-coming-home time," and I was quite amused to watch three cows on their way home impede the progress of a car on its way home. The driver of the car laid on the horn, but the cows were less concerned with the car than they were with ambling along, moo-ing to each other as if encouraging each other along. It took at least 30 seconds for the cows to move apart enough that the car could squeeze between two of them and continue its journey home. Like I said yesterday, that's rush hour in Shamgona!
So back to the seatbelts.... last weekend I went into Zugdidi with my host family and a colleague. I sat in the front seat of my colleague's car, and when I reached for the seatbelt, I could tell it did not see regular use. It was completely dusty, and when I pulled it toward me, it did not come easily. The motion was sticky and rough. Everyone in the car laughed and my colleague said (with Tea translating) that she thought that was the first time the seatbelt had ever been used! From today on, if seatbelts aren't used, the driver will be fined 40 GEL (about 25 dollars - maybe - my math-skills aren't so good). If the ticket isn't paid, another 150 GEL gets tacked onto the total. Hopefully this development in the consideration of safety will eventually spill over to the way they actually drive, too!