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Unruly drivers turning Moscow into free-for-all

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Enmeshed last May in a 2 1/2-hour traffic jam on his way to a Moscow airport, the driver of a city bus decided to save his passengers some time by taking a short cut through the park.

Not on a road. Through the park.Most world capitals have traffic problems. Then there is Moscow, where traffic is not just awful, but boisterously, exuberantly so. Free for eight years to buy anything they can afford, Muscovites have bought cars with a ven-geance.

They drive them that way, too. Never have so many cars driven by so many novices descended so quickly on such an unprepared metropolis.

Not so long ago, when the Communists ran things, Moscow traffic was as orderly as the line at Lenin's tomb. Now it is better compared to the obligatory scene in a grade-B western where riders gallop their horses through the town saloon.

People also get killed. There are about 20 serious accidents on Moscow streets each day, many involving pedestrians, and roughly 7,500 injuries and 800 deaths a year.

"If one learns to drive in Moscow, there isn't any other city in the world in which to be scared," said Andrei Schavelev, who heads the propaganda department of the State Automobile Inspectorate, known everywhere by its Russian acronym GAI.

To be fair, Russians have always had a reputation as zestful drivers. But for decades hardly anyone noticed because there were so few cars. The Soviet Union limited the production of cars, and those that were made usually went to Communists and the well-connected.

Moscow, a city of 8 million, counted only about 320,000 autos in 1981. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989 there were still but 877,500 - barely one car for every 10 res-i-dents.

Almost nine years later the ratio is closing in on a car for every three people - more than 2.2 million cars on the city registry, plus an estimated 300,000 more registered elsewhere. Five years ago, when the total was half that, the appetite for cars was so voracious that drivers snapped up more than 150,000 Japanese models that had been rushed across the continent - with right-hand drives.

Such force-feeding would give any city indigestion. Moscow is positively bloated, for even in the best of times this was not a place for a leisurely Sunday drive. As in any 850-year-old city, the downtown street grid is a crazy quilt. Even the more modern roads frequently change names from block to block, making map-reading an exercise in frustration.

Traffic signals are relatively infrequent - the city has fewer than Washington, a city of 550,000 people - and they tend to change according to their own unwritten rules. Many stoplights are not yet synchronized to speed the flow of cars. Increasingly, the thump of traffic has proven too much for Moscow's old streets, which have begun to cave in with alarming frequency, occasionally parboiling unfortunate victims in a spray of broken steam pipes.

Most striking of all are the city's traffic rules, which to Westerners can seem inscrutable, if not wrongheaded. "No Parking" can often be translated as "Park on the sidewalk, not the street." Left turns are largely banned, except when they are not; signs do not always distinguish the two.

U-turns are encouraged, but only on busy streets, and only in certain spots. The preferred method of making a left turn is to continue driving past one's destination, sometimes for several minutes, until the car reaches an overpass or a U-turn zone. With that, it is possible to turn around, backtrack to the destination and make a legal right turn.

Sometimes the only way to make a left turn is to turn right, then navigate a maze of U-turns and side streets to reach a traffic signal that will allow you to cross the street you were on to begin with.