Postimees

The pitfalls and potholes of driving in Estonia

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After nearly a year in Estonia I decided to buy a car. Of the sensible, family, not in the slightest bit sexy variety. I can’t name the brand, but cast your mind back to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics for a more than accurate clue. Impressed now maybe? Don’t be, it’s ancient.

It goes incredibly well though; it’s warm, smooth, and not far from the luxury car that some wide eyed yet sensible young IT professional was so excited to take delivery of in… ahem… 1998 (“It’s a 1998, you know, a fantastic year for that model”, if you word it like that it sounds more like an informed choice, like describing a favourite fine wine). Ok, maybe a doctor, or an architect, but certainly not a writer.

And so the saga began. Armed with a shopping list of legally required items I hit the superstores. In the UK one only needs to carry a spare wheel, which usually comes with the car, so for me this was a whole new and quite novel experience. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a fire extinguisher before.

Arriving at the checkout with a trolley load that looked more like the props for an elaborate, yet keen fancy dress outfit, I couldn’t help feeling safer already. I became amazed at how a country can care so much for its drivers, that it makes such an odd pick-and-mix of items compulsory for road users in an attempt to pave the way for a secure and more pleasant driving experience.

Eager to fill my boot with my newly purchased reflective delights and get on the road, I jumped on the bus bound for home. As I sat, hypnotised by the twinkle of smartphone screens and second hand beats, I drew on the memories of back home in the UK; gliding through the country lanes, bombing down the M5 motorway with Radio 1 blasting out into the night. I couldn’t wait to get out onto the roads of Estonia. I took in one last deep breath of public transport air, with its top notes of garlic and alcohol/chemicals, and stepped into the world of the car owner.

Now every country has its priorities, the UK for instance focuses on health care, the benefit system, our heritage. Estonia too — a deeply proud nation — puts great effort into preserving the national customs and traditions. You also have one of the most advanced internet based government service systems in the world I believe, to be able to connect all services using a simple ID card and number, is an amazing feat. So please tell me Estonia, whatever happened to your roads!

Disappointed isn’t the word. Shaken, that’s the word. After such a personal build up to my first experience as a driver here, I can only describe myself as being left utterly shaken; mentally and absolutely physically. My first venture out was more like an involuntary Thai massage, I saw parts of my car’s cabin I really wasn’t supposed to see, hit my head and bit my lip; certainly not a happy ending.

When I returned home my worried wife reached for the phone, to report the beating to the police. It was whilst putting her mind at rest and trying to convince her that all I had done was popped to the supermarket for milk (which was now butter), that it dawned on me that this was my driving life from now on. So, always the optimist, I cancelled my now redundant gym membership and decided to embrace it.

A month on and I feel great. Lean, toned and all too ready to cast scorn on my UK friends, with their effeminate, silky smooth roads. They’ll never know what it’s like to plan your route based on the quality of the road surface, to budget each month for repairs to your suspension system, or to have to do warm-up stretches before a journey. In fact, like most aspects of UK life, they don’t have to think about anything.

I however, have to think about these things daily, I actively try to avoid the lunar surface they refer to as Peterburi tee, and when I do find myself on it I wear my, I-can’t-believe-this-is-a-major-route face (go on, try to imagine it). My driving has transformed from a serene, gentle sail, into a paranoid, twitchy mess, whilst I make my merry way as if dodging bullets in an early incarnation of space invaders.

Now for the science bit, if you can call my limited knowledge of road decay science. I know it gets cold here, and I know you use salt on the roads, and of course I know this isn’t the best combination for flawless road surfaces, so no blame intended. But, maybe to temporarily fill the worst of the potholes might be a better solution than the current one: that being a sign placed 30 metres before a crater that could disable an armoured vehicle, giving a car travelling at 50km per hour approximately 2–3 seconds to avoid a weekend with the mechanic. It’s like shouting ‘Cliff!’ two seconds before someone inadvertently plunges into the sea. We need a little more time.

Friends are all too quick to inform me that by the end of May these blips are usually ironed out, that the annually visible syndrome of Tallinn and other cities’ carriageways is medicated for yet another year. Symptoms concealed for the meantime. But as any doctor will tell you, you need to get to the root of the problem. You have to look after these arteries, keep tabs on the pressure you put on them, reduce stress and definitely go easy on the salt!

Alas, this technologically gifted country has got many things right, I’m always amazed when the pharmacist produces the correct medicine for my little boy from his card alone, and filing my latest tax return was as easy as sending a text. So come one of these springs, when I’m sat at the side of the road assessing the damage of my now undriveable car’s undercarriage, shivering in the tail end of the winter and — disorientated by the stable ground thrust upon me — already planning my strongly worded letter to the gods of the Estonian roads; I can be sure in the knowledge that a breakdown service, The Road Administration (Maanteeamet) and a taxi are just a smartphone app away.

First published in Postimees, 13th March 2015