Taking the wheel puts women in the hot seat

In capitalist Russia, more women are on the road - and driving men crazy

The worried woman hunches at the wheel as if bracing for a crash and peers warily at the clogged highway. Plastered on her rear window, a perky sticker showing a high-heeled shoe implores all drivers behind her: "Respect me!'"

It's a wilderness out there for Moscow's women drivers.

In Soviet times, economics kept most Russians from owning cars, and custom kept most women from taking the wheel. But with the advent of capitalism, prosperity began refashioning Moscow. Although interrupted by an economic implosion in 1998, the boom has resumed. And as salaries and consumer spending have increased, so have the traffic jams caused by the swarms of new vehicles on the capital's roads. The number of cars in Moscow rose from about 2 million in 1997 to 2.5 million in 2001.

While Russian agencies don't analyze car ownership by gender, the throngs of drivers now include more women, motorists and officials agree.

Today, one driving instructor says, most students in a class of 12 are female. A decade ago, only one or two women would surface in a class of the same size.

The woman driver's emergence has fueled debate, ridicule, and at times harassment in this forward-looking city with some very old-fashioned ways.

In self-defense, many women now paste triangular warning stickers on their car windows. Besides the high-heeled shoe, there's a picture of a girl in a bouffant hairdo, and the Cyrillic letter, "Sh," standing for "student driver." There's even a sticker with a teapot - a reference to Russian slang for "bumbling amateur."

The stickers are supposed to prompt automotive gallantry, says auto-parts vendor Mikhail Brizgin, who began selling them two years ago and now sells about 10 a week.

But just as often, male drivers respond by honking, barking insults, or cutting women drivers off in traffic.

Both sides seem to agree on one thing, however: Women really do drive differently from men.

"I don't know how to put this so as not to offend," offers Roma Agishev, a young male photographer. "Women are either oriented toward the rules they learned in driving school, or guided by intuition to avoid risk. Here, at least a third of the drivers don't follow rules at all. So safe driving creates dangerous situations."

But bank manager Yevgeniya Volokva says it's men who make driving dangerous.

"Women drive more carefully and more slowly," she says. "They may have kids in the car, and they're not as crazy. They're not showing off.''

The emergence of the woman driver reflects changes in the marketplace.

Though women worked during Soviet times, they tended to stay in the background professionally. In today's Russia, businesswomen are in the foreground of the capitalist landscape. And companies are hiring them for career-track jobs, which often means travel.

"Women have started to live another way - as much more a part of society," says Olga Vazhbina, a young pharmaceutical company executive. "Driving becomes really necessary if you want to work."

Ms. Vazhbina exemplifies the new businesswoman. She is also an object lesson in the road shock experienced by some of Moscow's new female drivers.

After her firm assigned her a car three years ago, she ventured into the capital's harrowing traffic - and soon after landed in a spectacular accident.

"I lost control of the wheel, then I lost the road altogether," she says. "I hit 15 construction barrels on the way. Then I hit a big stone construction barrier. Then I went over a fence... It was like a movie. When it stopped, I escaped from the car, and I was OK. The car was on the edge of a giant precipice."

She's back behind the wheel now, and pronounces herself a rather good driver.

In fact, a recent study indicated Moscow women drive more safely than men.

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