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Russia: Many Consider Americans Unsafe Drivers -- Even Americans

Washington, 28 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian foreign ministry spokesman says Americans are unsafe drivers who do not pay attention to traffic rules and regulations. Surprisingly, many Americans would agree.

Russia's recent complaints about driving habits of Americans follow a traffic accident last week in which a U.S. diplomat sationed at the embassy in Moscow struck and seriously injured a woman in a crosswalk. The diplomat, Matthew Byrza, has been recalled to Washington, but a criminal investigation in Russia is underway.

In response to the incident, Valery Nesterushkin of the Russian foreign ministry told reporters that U.S. Embassy employees "do not observe the rules of the country they are staying in" and already have the highest number of traffic violations this year among the diplomatic missions in Moscow -- a total of 141.

U.S. officials in turn say the American embassy in Moscow is one of the largest in the world and they say statistics must be kept in proportion. The officials also say Byrza has a good driving record, had not been drinking, and was travelling at a slow speed when the accident occurred.

But interestingly enough, Russia's criticism of American drivers just happened to coincide with the release of a survey this week that was highly critical of American drivers. The survey, sponsored by the U.S. Coalition for Consumer Health and Safety (CCHS), says Americans think drivers in the U.S. are far more discourteous and unsafe than just five years ago.

Stephen Brobeck, chairman of CCHS, told reporters on Tuesday that "discourteous driving has eroded traffic safety" in America.

Brobeck said Americans are the most concerned about drivers who run red lights, follow another car too closely (tailgate), and do not stop at stop signs. Other complaints listed in the survey include criticism of drivers who change lanes erratically, do not signal turns in advance, and use a cellular phone while driving.

Brobeck said that as a result of the survey, his organization is launching a campaign to promote safe, courteous driving across America. He says the Coalition will hand out wallet-sized cards that contain tips reminding drivers how to drive courteously. The organization will target schools, police forces and community centers around the nation, Brobeck said.

"The goal of our campaign is to convince America that unsafe driving reflects not just the irresponsible behavior of a small minority of very aggressive drivers, but the slow erosion of safe, courteous driving standards throughout the country," he said.

But some critics say that Russia has no right to complain about American driving habits, especially when it has its own problems with obeying traffic rules and regulations abroad.

For example, a Russian diplomat and a Belorusian colleague were involved in a scuffle last December with New York City police who were trying to arrest them for drunk driving.

And an American newspaper, "The Washington Times," reported this week that Russian diplomats accumulated 31,000 unpaid traffic tickets in New York City last year and that they currently owe the city about $1.4 million in traffic fines.