WARNING: The video below contains disturbing images of pedestrians being struck by cars. Proceed with extreme caution.
Here's something Azerbaijan could do with its newfound oil wealth: Paint more crosswalks. As it stands now, there seems to be a shortage of them.
The paucity of crossing opportunities has a harsh, painful impact on the country's pedestrian class. Faced with endless streams of cars, walkers have to mill around uneasily by the curb until a gap in traffic comes and they can make a lightning dash for the median. This hair-raising game of real-life Frogger often leads to collisions, as larger vehicles hide the presence of pedestrians from pursuing cars until it's too late.
The problem is amplified in the capital of Baku. The city's highways are like a fast-paced demolition derby, thanks to the high concentration of inexperienced drivers who just moved in from the country or leveraged their oil earnings into a first-time vehicle purchase. In 2010, half of the country's traffic accidents occurred in Baku, resulting in 342 deaths and 1,115 injuries. To extrapolate from national figures, the chance of a traffic wreck involving a pedestrian in Baku is about 40 percent.
In our D.C. office, I happen to know sort of an expert on the weirdly intense experience of darting across a busy Azerbaijani byway. Amanda Erickson, our esteemed associate editor here at The Atlantic Cities, spent 10 months in the country dodging homicidal-willed drivers, because it's "the only way to cross the street!" she says. "It's sort of terrifying – I used to have to wait for some babushka'd Baku grandmother to cross so I could go with her, otherwise I'd be stuck on one side of the street forever. A bad habit I still haven't broken."
Erickson says the country's recently begun installing underground crosswalks. But it's got a long road ahead of it in making visitors feel safe. Here are a few of the frightful commentaries I found from tourists who recently visited Baku. From Yemmma on Trip Advisor, who was traveling with a wheelchair:
Traveling to Baku in a wheelchair is not easy, but we did it. The city center has sidewalks without cutouts. Unless, you can jump them, you'll need help. There are no crosswalks, and the cars drive any which way they want. Instead of signaling, they honk. Instead of slowing down, they honk. It's pretty chaotic on the streets. Driving lanes are mere "suggestions." You get the picture.
From Mickeyd302 on TravBuddy:
First, if you ever come here, it is very rare for a driver to give the pedestrian the right of way. Do not assume that the driver will just do the same thing they do in the USA and let you cross the street. The general rule is whoever is bigger has the right of way. Even if you have safely crossed halfway across the street and are patiently waiting for the car that is blocking your path to move, do not be surprised if the car behind it to swerve right into the area of where you are standing.
Second, drivers do not always follow the direction of one way traffic. It is not uncommon for some drivers to take a "shortcut" against the flow if the road is open. As pedestrian, it is important to know this. In elementary school some of us were taught to look left, right and then left again before crossing the street. Here, you should be looking both ways as you cross the street. This might make you look paranoid with your head and eyes moving back forth rapidly, but it is better to be alive with a look of paranoia than it is to be dead with a content look on your face
And here's the intel from the U.S. State Department:
Driving hazards such as open manholes, debris, sinkholes, and potholes are common in Baku. Many drivers do not pay attention to traffic regulations, signals, lane markings, pedestrians, or other drivers. Drivers often travel at extremely high speeds, and accidents are frequent and often serious. Pedestrians do not use crosswalks to cross the street and often stand in the median between lanes of traffic, even at night. Driving in Baku should be considered extremely hazardous.
If you need any more proof that being a pedestrian in Azerbaijan sucks, consider the above compilation of car-on-walker crashes compiled by Trend News. If I ever wind up in Baku, the only way you'll see me crossing the road is if I'm wearing some Ursus Mark VII grizzly-bear armor.