Issue 6, 2012. December-January

   

DRIVING IN TBILISI - A GUIDE

You have made an emergency stop for unmarked cow crossings, survived a game of chicken with a car heading the wrong way up a one way street, and figured out a way to legally park on Barnovi Street. Now relax: taking the wheel in Tbilisi can be daunting, but new laws and regulations are slowly making driving in the capital safer.

Marta Ferrer Lubeck

If Mr. Magoo drove in Tbilisi...


For many foreigners in Georgia, driving can seem intimidating. While traffic regulations in Georgia are similar to laws in other countries, there are differences that drivers should be aware of, including heavy construction, aggressive driving styles, and unmarked animal crossings.

Dr. Mike McCarthy, a physician from New York who has been driving in Tbilisi since 1998, cautioned that expat drivers should take the time to learn the driving conditions here before setting out on the road. In Georgia, he noted, drivers need to be "most attentive for the unexpected."

McCarthy said that while directing health services for major international projects in the region, foreign drivers were expected to pass "many stringent examinations" including remote driving skills, safety strategies, and contingency plans to limit night driving.

"My advice, and that of most projects is, if at all possible, travel in a 4x4, as it is raised above a possible impact zone in most MVAs (motor vehicle accidents), wear seat belts, use a driver if possible — drive defensively if not, and be most attentive for the unexpected," he added.

Karen Wolfson, an expat from California who started driving in Tbilisi in July, said she was hesitant to start driving here in the beginning — largely due to "careless drivers taking chances that could affect both themselves and others," she said. However, she noted that, despite the lack of appreciation for international driving norms, Georgian drivers appear to be skilled at parking and avoiding accidents and she has observed fewer accidents and fender-benders here than she did in the United States.

The leading causes of road accidents in Georgia are speeding and drunk driving, according to figures released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In 2008, the number of road accidents peaked at 6,015 — and the number of deaths at 867. Since then, the Georgian government has implemented stricter traffic laws. For example, the penalty for not wearing a seatbelt is now 40 lari.

There are also more stringent penalties for drunk drivers. The fine for driving under the influence of alcohol is 200 lari. Repeat offenders lose their drivers license for one year. The strict seatbelt law implemented by the Georgian Parliament in 2010 has played a major role in the decrease of road accidents, according to Irakli Izoria, director of the Partnership for Road Safety. In 2011, the total number of road accidents was 4,486 and the number of deaths was 526. The rates are higher than those of other European countries, but there has been a steady improvement.

Civil organizations like the Partnership for Road Safety, which was founded in 2006, are working to reduce the number of road accidents and deaths in Georgia. The organization promotes road safety through education and advocacy. In conjunction with other entities, the organization was a leading advocate for legislation that culminated in the 2010 seatbelt law. Currently, it is focused on two projects: educating children about road safety and and passing of child restraint laws.

More cars, more potential accidents

The traffic flow in Tbilisi is greatly affected by the number of vehicles on the roads, as well as the city's infrastructure and geography. According to the 2011 Sustainable Energy Action Plan, in 2009 there were 233,187 registered cars in the city. Of the total, 73% of all vehicles in Tbilisi were private vehicles (including taxis) and 27% were public transportation vehicles. Yet, the city was not built to handle this high a volume of private vehicles. Although it is unique in many ways, Tbilisi has a road infrastructure similar to the traditional Soviet urban model, which favors public transportation. In addition, Tbilisi is a city with many hills, which further complicate traffic flow. Tbilisi is investing heavily in road construction and traffic management, however. The widening of the embankment, the new highway, and tunnel linking Vake and Saburtalo, and other ongoing projects, will improve the city's traffic flow once completed. In 2007, City Hall outsourced the management of parking in the city to C.T. Park. While this has not yet translated into a significant increase in parking spaces, parking regulations are being strictly enforced and improving traffic flow. "Iare pekhit," a grassroots project to strengthen pedestrian rights, is also trying to shame drivers into following the rules by posting violators' photos and license plates on a website. As McCarthy said, "The number of deaths and serious injuries thankfully are reducing significantly with road improvements, improved policing, public awareness campaigns and improvements in the driver education and skills, but there is a way to go."


Getting Behind the Wheel: The basics in Georgia

Georgia recognizes operational driving licenses from foreign countries. A foreigner can also change his/her foreign license into a Georgian license without taking the theoretical and practical exams. The Service Agency LEPL of the Ministry of Internal Affairs handles driving licenses and the registration of vehicles.

Car registration, however, is handled in Rustavi, about 25km from Tbilisi.

There are driving schools throughout Tbilisi for those who want to prepare for the theoretical and practical exams required to obtain a Georgian driver's license.

There are exam practice books available for sale in Tbilisi, and practice tests written in English can be found on the Georgian Police website, www.police.ge.