Visitors to Yerevan were always fascinated, perhaps appalled, by the lack of use of seat belts by Armenian drivers. Putting on your seat belt is such an automatic thing to do for Westerners. But until a year ago or so, nearly no one in Armenia used seat belts.
I had constant seat belt battles with Armen, my driver in my old job here. He firmly believed that using a seat belt was dangerous. We discussed it one day.
Me: Please put on your seat belt
He: No, it is dangerous
Me: What? How so? (It was early on in our working relationship. I was genuinely curious, as opposed to the ‘are you insane?’ reaction I developed later)
He: If you get into an accident, it will break your collar bone
The fact that your head will go through the windshield if you don’t seemed irrelevant.
In the end, I had to inform him in writing that if he did not use his seat belt (regardless of whether I personally was in the car and not- I was catching on), that the company life insurance policy was invalid.
He: How much does my family get if I get killed in an accident wearing my seat belt? (He was thinking of bargaining, I could feel it)
Me: Fifty thousand Euros
He: And if my wife is driving the car, do I get the money?
I ended the conversation there.
Then there was the episode where Eddie the Norwegian, starting a new job in a broadband company here, took a taxi to work the first day all dolled up in white shirt and tie. Eddie started putting on the seat belt, but the driver told him not to. Eddie put it on anyway. The taxi driver shook his head. Crazy Europeans. When Eddie got to work, he couldn’t understand why people were staring at him. Then a brave sole in the office pointed out the black stripe going diagonally down across the front of his white shirt, upper right to lower left.
The seat belt in the taxi had not been used in a while, if at all.
Then about a year ago, the government declared that anyone caught driving without using their seat belt would be heavily fined. This is a government concerned about the safety of its people. This is also a new gold mine for the sticky fingers of the traffic police.
But, nooooo…. Rules are for being circumnavigated, laws are for being bent. Even ones intended to save your life.
Quite common is that drivers will pull the seat belt across their chests, simply holding the end buckle in their right hand. The steering wheel is gripped by the left hand alone.
Me: Why don’t you buckle the belt, and drive with both hands?
He: Seat belts make me feel confined
Me: But driving with one hand is kind of dangerous
He: I have to have the seat belt across my chest, or the police will stop me
Me: Then just buckle the seat belt
He: No, the police can’t see that it isn’t buckled
Go ahead, read that conversation again.
All this makes perfect sense- to him, not me.
Gago the driver is a gem. Always extremely service-minded and chatting away in his deep, gravelly voice, he transports me to and from the airport when I make my overseas trips. Gago was very irritated when the new seat belt law came into effect. It was an evil plot by the government to get money, nothing less, he insisted.
An urban myth (or not?) tells the story of a few years ago where a new law was passed in parliament whereby all passenger cars had to carry a fire extinguisher. A very particular fire extinguisher, said the law. And who had the exclusive import license for that very particular fire extinguisher? You got it, a powerful member of the parliament. So, Gago’s comment on an evil plot made me wonder who had the exclusive rights to the import of seat belts…….
Last time he picked me up, I noticed that Gago had indeed installed seat belts in his car.
Me: Congratulations on your new seat belts
He: Evil plot by the government
Me: But why do you only have the belt that goes over the shoulder, and not the one that goes across the waist?
He: The police can’t see it
Gago had his revenge. He fooled them. He had removed the waist strap, and the police couldn’t see that he had done so when he was driving. The fact that seat belts are intended to save lives simply never crossed his radar, or the radar of a heck of a lot of other drivers in Armenia.
Another driver really had the police fooled:
He: No need to put on your seat belt
Me: But I want to put on my seat belt
He: Don’t you trust me?
Me: It’s not about trust, it’s the law (I had learned to dodge the whole safety issue by now)
He: I have tinted windows. The police can’t see it.
Sigh. I think I have made my point clear.
Seat belts save lives. They are not an evil plot by the government. It is not a moral victory if the police can’t see that you’re not actually using seat belts or only have half seat belts.
Gago, and all you other drivers. I do care about you. Use your seat belts(all parts of it), please!
P.S. A friend of mine came up with a brilliant idea. T-shirts with seat belt straps and a buckle stitched onto them. Now THAT the police would see!