Beware of Bandits in Uniform!
An occupational hazard when driving in any country is the potential for brushes with the law. Driving in one’s own country leads to many people’s only experience of being caught breaking the law, when their speed creeps a little above the limit and they’re nabbed by a concealed cop, a roadside camera or radar device. Driving in a foreign country on strange roads, where you’re not 100% certain of the local rules, means the potential to break those rules increases greatly. And in some countries, the sight of an obvious foreigner driving a rental car is a tempting proposition for a poorly paid traffic cop, looking at ways to supplement his income.
I’ve driven in every part of the world, and have had my fair share of run-ins with the boys in blue/green/khaki , and in some cases, no uniforms at all (indeed I’m not even sure they were really police!). I’m often asked which are the worst countries to drive in from the point of view of being hauled up by the cops, either on a valid charge or as a money making exercise.
In terms of being pulled up for a legitimate charge such as speeding, I’d have to say the more developed the country, the greater the technology available to the police, and the higher the likelihood of being stopped (or receiving a fine in the post via the rental company when you’ve returned home). I actually find it quite stressful to drive in rural areas of the USA, with long, straight roads, few other cars…and 55MPH speed limits and local cops with sophisticated radar tracking devices. The only way to avoid your speed creeping up is to switch on the cruise control set at the correct speed limit, sit back and try not to fall asleep! And just about every European country seems to have an addiction to speed cameras, whether blatant deterrents or concealed fine generating machines.
Avoiding a less legitimate ‘fine’ is more difficult, and in my experience, the two areas of the world where you’re most likely to be seen as a mobile cash dispenser by the local law enforcement officials are Eastern Europe, and the undisputed Daddy of traffic cop corruption- West Africa.
Eastern Europe seems to have a general surfeit of traffic law enforcement officers. In some countries they seem to be everywhere. In rural Lithuania, there were so many police cars hidden amongst the trees I became paranoid and , not knowing the speed limit, crawled along at a ridiculously slow rate, my eyes scanning the foliage like a hunter tracking prey. In Armenia, I was stopped twice, by two different patrol cars within 10 minutes for different ‘offences’. In Russia, I heard stories of bogus cops stopping and fining motorists. The rumour was that many were off duty officers using their spare time to top up their salaries. I found a more likely answer in a small shop in a Moscow back street, which sold full police uniforms, identity cards, replica weapons and everything one would need to masquerade as a traffic cop!
You really only have one card to play if stopped by the police in Eastern Europe. That’s the fact that it’s unlikely they’ll speak any English. And even if you have a smattering of the local language, you’d be a fool to reveal that. Playing the part of the super dumb tourist is by far your best chance of avoiding a fine/bribe. Smile and shrug a lot. Waving a map and pointing at the spot you’re heading to helps. Try waving it upside down to really emphasise your stupidity. The officer will resort to miming the offence you’ve committed. But however, clear his actions are, you’ll fail to grasp what he’s saying. I’ve wriggled out of fines for the most obvious infractions in this way. Not having my lights on during the day in Montenegro – I bent down and examined the headlamps as the officer pointed at them. I tapped them and rubbed them with my sleeve while shrugging and grinning like a fool. In the end he gave up. As did the traffic cop in Tbilisi, Georgia who pulled me for not wearing a seat belt. I somehow even managed to avoid understanding that obvious offence, and left him to stomp away, shaking his head and muttering , obviously wondering how foreigners manage to pass a driving test at all.
The real home of traffic cop corruption though is Africa, particularly West Africa where paying bribes/‘dash’ /Cadeaux/gifts is a way of life. Roadside road blocks are common and local drivers expect to be stopped and to pay a small bribe to avoid a lengthy vehicle search and question and answer session. The problem as a foreign driver is that the acceptable bribe for a local will be deemed far too small for a seemingly wealthy tourist. The officers will therefore invest the maximum time in searching your car and bags, while shaking their heads,scowling and pulling out suspicious items such as pen knives, camera chargers and sachets of Rehydration salts.
The key to success in these situations is to identify the man in charge and be friendly, but deferential to him. I was once stopped on a quiet road in Senegal by a rag-tag band led by the archetypal African bad cop- scruffy fatigues, beret, gold teeth and shades. He instructed his men to search our bags as I vainly tried to pay them off with cigarettes and whiskey. All having been refused I played my final card “Chocolate biscuit?” I asked, as my partner winced. “No!” hissed the squinting conscript rummaging in our rucksacks. Suddenly a booming baritone spoke up “I will take a biscuit!”. It was the main man.
We all stopped and watched as he took a surprisingly delicate bite, and chewed vigorously. Suddenly, the gold teeth were on display and a huge smile spread across his grizzled face. “Mmmm. This biscuit is delicious!” He beamed.
“Take one!” He barked at his men, and so we all stood on the dusty roadside, posing for photos and chatting with our new choc biscuit munching friends.
I always try to establish some personal rapport in these situations. I extend my hand, smile and ask the officer’s name. Often taken aback, they rarely react angrily, and in most cases will end up laughing and joking with you, swapping addresses and souvenirs. One exception was Frankie, a young soldier in Madagascar, in the edgy days following a coup attempt. I thought we were getting along just fine, having exchanged names and elaborate hand shakes on a pitch black, power cut hit road in Antananarivo. The obvious next step was an exchange of addresses so we could keep in touch and arrange when Frankie would come and visit me in the UK (yeah, right!) but as he raised his rusty rifle and stuck it in my chest , and his grin changed from friendly to menacing, I realised I wasn’t going to be the winner on this occasion and began frantically scrabbling in my pocket for Frankie’s gift.
Once you’ve made it clear that you aren’t planning to hand over any cash, you need to be thinking about an exit strategy. That’s an exit strategy for the cop/soldier, not you. More often than not, his subordinates or friends will be watching the action unfold, and going back to them empty handed is a serious loss of face. You need to provide him with a crumb of comfort which can be twisted into a victory on his part. One useful tactic is to carry some coins from your own country – the shinier and heavier the better. Even if you both know that the coin you’ve given him isn’t going to stretch to a can of coke, it at least gives him the chance to slip it into his pocket and return to his mates with a wink and a spring in his step, patting his pocketed prize and mysteriously refusing to disclose its true value.
Another way of saving face for the officer is to let him solve a problem for you. You can kill two birds with one stone by linking your imaginary issue to a lack of cash to give him. For instance, perhaps you’ve been ripped off by a hotel or restaurant. Maybe you were held up by bandits further down the road… perhaps those bandits were officers from the neighbouring town’s police department. You need to be suitably vague in case you’ve located that rare officer who actually intends to investigate the ‘crime’. Most will have no intention of taking the matter further. However you give them an opportunity to take out their notebook and make copious notes on the incident, and promise you they’ll be investigating further. They can then return to their friends and explain that some devious miscreant got their before them and robbed you before they had chance!
I’ve met self drive travellers who adopt a different approach and inform the officer that they’re putting a call into their brother, the ambassador, to check whether a dirty vehicle really is a traffic offence worth of a fine (it actually is in Russia!). Others dig their heels in and adopt a ‘How dare you, I’m from America/ England/ Australia/Germany etc etc’. In my opinion this just ups the stakes, and becomes a battle of wits which you’re unlikely to win. Even if you escape without paying, you’ll waste valuable hours of your trip on a tedious roadside inquisition and examination of your car. Don’t forget, the police are being paid to stand on that roadside – you’re not!
Renting a car abroad can be expensive enough without lining the pockets of the local police. If you’re unsure of the rules and speed limits, a good general rule is to do what everyone else is doing. If you’re the fastest car on the road, you’re asking for a fine.
In countries with a less than trustworthy police force, remember to be friendly and polite, smile a lot, try to avoid understanding what you’ve done wrong and the golden rule…always carry some chocolate biscuits!