Thursday Apr 22, 2010
Amid growing anger in Russia over state officials and businessmen using special sirens on their cars to flout traffic regulations, the country's Parliament is considering a law that would drastically restrict their use.

The flashing blue lights, or migalki as they are known in Russian, are the bane of ordinary motorists, especially in the capital.

Driving at high speed down the wrong side of the road, whizzing through Moscow's notorious traffic jams while ambulances and fire engines wait patiently - all of this is possible for a car with a migalka.

The flashing blue light, issued officially and less officially to an increasing number of the self-important and the well-connected, confers immunity from prosecution by the feared traffic police.

But rising public anger over reckless driving and recent high-profile accidents involving cars using the sirens has led to a rethink among parliamentarians.

Motorists' groups say this is not enough, and are calling for the number of officials who are allowed to use the sirens to be restricted.

According to government data, there are 964 cars used by top-ranking government officials that have the right to use sirens and thus disobey traffic laws when necessary.

But the real figure is likely to be several times this. Some ministries may equip more cars with migalki than their quotas allow, while there are also rumours that businessmen can bribe traffic police to obtain the coveted flashing light.

"In other countries, government officials or businesspeople don't have these privileges," said Vyacheslav Lysakov, a spokesman for the Freedom of Choice drivers' organisation. "They can't just buy a migalka with a bag of cash and drive on the wrong side."

A series of protests about the use of the sirens has hit the Russian capital in recent days. On Tuesday, a column of cars with small blue plastic buckets taped to their roofs drove through Moscow, displaying banners reading "Migalki are Russia's shame!"

Yesterday, a similar protest was planned, but a squadron of police cars was dispatched to block the cars from beginning their protest drive. Police ordered the drivers to remove the blue buckets from their car roofs, and those who refused to do so were arrested.

The protest organisers said that two motorists were arrested and were being held in jail. They will be charged with failure to carry out a police order, and face a fine or up to 15 days in prison.

Anatoly Ivanov, of the ruling United Russia party, has introduced a bill to the State Duma that would fine drivers who used their siren when they were not carrying out "urgent official duties".

The anger has been driven in part by a number of cases involving drivers with migalki that have hit the headlines in recent months in Russia. Most notable of all was the incident involving Anatoly Barkov, vice-president of Lukoil.

His chauffeur-driven Mercedes crashed into a small Citroen carrying two female obstetricians in February. Both women were killed.

Police initially blamed the driver of the Citroen, but a CCTV recording made its way on to the internet that appeared to show Barkov's black Mercedes pulling out into the wrong side of the road. Barkov denied that he or his driver were at fault.

In recognition of public anger, the campaign against the special sirens has drawn support from the Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, who said it was "natural" that ordinary motorists were irritated by the number of cars equipped with migalki in the Russian capital.

He said only three people should be allowed a siren: the President, the Prime Minister, and the patriarch of the Orthodox Church.