Drivers spend testing time in red-light zone

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A Russian gets into a taxi and is alarmed when the driver speeds through a red traffic-light. ''Relax,'' says the driver. ''You've got a master at the wheel here.'' The taxi whizzes through another red light. ''Relax,'' says the driver again. ''I told you, I'm a master.'' At a green light, the taxi stops. ''Why have you stopped?'' demands the passenger. ''Ah,'' says the driver, ''there could be a master coming the other way.''

This is an old Soviet joke, told when few Russians had private cars and traffic was almost entirely taxis, lorries and official limousines. Imagine the anarchy now, when Russians are buying cars as if there was no tomorrow. But it is not just the cars they are buying.

Often they buy the licences too and drive powerful vehicles without any training. Passing a driving test the official way is not easy. Bribing an examiner with, say, $400 (pounds 260) could not be simpler in this country, where corruption is endemic. The received wisdom is that only poor fools go through driving school. This week I joined the fools and the poor at Moscow's Extern Driving School.

The school, near the Moscow River, used to be a closed naval college and still offers courses in navigation and deep-sea diving. If you have the money, you can learn to sail a yacht here.

But most of the students, tired after a day's work, are going for a four-hour lecture on road theory. Some 200, each having paid 150,000 roubles ($33) for an intensive course of four such lectures, are staring at huge screens with cartoons of cars improperly parked and lorries and horse- drawn hay carts bearing down on each other at country crossroads.

''Here we see the hay cart has right of way,'' drones the instructor. Most of the students, ranging in age from school-leavers to pensioners, appear to be having difficulty resisting sleep. They must learn scores of signs and study 700 road situations. At the end of the theory course, they must answer nine out of 10 questions correctly to move on to practical instruction and the test itself. If they fail the theory, they can repeat the lectures as many times as they like without paying extra.

They must also appear before a medical commission and bring a certificate from a psychiatrist declaring them mentally normal. ''It's really to weed out drug addicts and alcoholics,'' said the deputy director, Vladimir Trofimov, ''because we are all mad, aren't we?'' Women must also bring a certificate from a gynaecologist. ''You'd better ask the doctors about that,'' he said. ''It's got something to do with some women being prone to a disease which can make them lose consciousness.''

With so many hurdles, lazy Russians prefer to give a quick bribe, even in the knowledge they risk jail if they have an accident and are found to have documents not registered in the central computer. Mr Trofimov is horrified. ''Corrupt police officers are literally sending killers out on to the roads'' by providing such papers, he said. He insists an honest person can succeed. Almost all his students pass sooner or later, he says. ''Be honest and you will be safe too. That is our credo.''

Among the students, there are probably fewer idealists. Viktor, who looks like a traffic-light in an orange T-shirt, suggests he might not be taking the lessons if he could afford to avoid them. But Natasha, a professional skier, says: ''I want to learn properly, then I will go fast in my parents' Zhiguli'' [exported as the Lada].

For me, the driving school is interesting as a model of society as a whole. After so many years of Communism, when Russians sought loopholes through restrictive laws and bought the favours of arbitrary bureaucrats, can they adapt to become law-abiding citizens? After decades of believing the opposite of what they were told officially, can they accept that red is red and green is green?