MOSCOW — On the streets of Russia's capital, it is the loser who ventures out without a weapon.
Once the armament of choice was a small Lada. These days, it's likely to be a 3-ton Mercedes. Yet the dynamics of battle remain the same: The front bumper trumps the pedestrian, who is sent somersaulting over the hood almost every time.
So frequently do automobiles and pedestrians come into contact that a body at the side of the road covered with an overcoat barely draws a crowd. Elderly women, faced with a green crossing light, break into clumsy sprints with the help of their canes; students gather in packs like nervous gazelles before dashing across crosswalks in carefully timed streaks.
Last year, 34,506 people were killed and a quarter of a million injured in road accidents in Russia -- nearly double the rate in the U.S. In Moscow alone, more than 14 cars a day hit pedestrians; 300 have died this year. Officials estimate that road accidents cost the nation 2.5% of its gross domestic product in lost worker productivity last year.
The urban toll has prompted a rare bout of self-reflection among some drivers and a national campaign to promote courtesy toward the foot-bound. Last week, Moscow traffic police and a coalition of city newspapers began passing out windshield stickers bearing the zebra-like crossing symbol and the words "I Let Pedestrians Pass."
Pedestrians who use only crosswalks and underpasses, as opposed to wading defiantly through six or more lanes of moving traffic, will be eligible for stickers of their own.
"An attempt to cross a busy street in Moscow at an unlighted pedestrian crossing is a life-threatening experience for any pedestrian," said Vyacheslav Lysakov, head of the motorists movement Freedom of Choice, one of several organizations promoting the initiative. "It is high time our drivers realize that pedestrians crossing streets are not crazy hares to be hunted down and run over, but our children, our wives, mothers, relatives and friends, that are an equal party in a Moscow street, who have their rights."
The campaign has elicited a fair amount of grumbling on the part of Moscow drivers, some of whom argue that slowing down for pedestrians puts drivers at risk of being rear-ended.
"I would like to be polite and considerate and generous. I would love to let the pedestrian pass by me. But who can guarantee that the back of my car will not be smashed the next minute, if I stop?" said Galina Konova, who has driven a taxi in Moscow for 32 years. "I may even be doing him a disservice if I let him pass my car, because the other cars will simply speed up and hit him.
"You see, it's a matter of hatred," she added. "Both drivers and pedestrians simply have no respect for each other. And it's not all the drivers' fault. You see a pedestrian, he runs into the street, you stop your car suddenly and almost crash, and he suddenly comes to a stop, turns around and runs back!"
"Imagine it's at night," said popular NTV host Vladimir Solovyov. "The road is not lighted, and some drunk guy is dancing his little tap dance. He's in the road, now he's back on the curb, now he's back in the road again. The whole traffic should stop and wait for him to make up his mind?"
Pedestrians counter that to venture into Moscow's streets is to walk without even minimal dignity, not to mention safety. A woman trying to cross, they say, is often subjected to a Soviet-era invective: "You cow!" a driver will shout out his window. "This is a car! It doesn't copulate, it kills!"
Pedestrians develop their own survival techniques. Few will venture into a crosswalk without an obvious invitation. Even then, they usually step suspiciously onto the field of battle, like mice in a roomful of cats.
"Half the time, people speed up instead of stopping," complained Sophia Konavalova, 56, a cleaning woman who was gathering petunia seeds on an island in the middle of a downtown boulevard last week, near where a wreath lay -- 10 feet inside the curb -- for a fallen pedestrian.
"In general, there is no respect for human life in this country," she said. "The driver's position is, 'I'm in a hurry, I need to get there whatever happens, I have no time for you.' And it's not only the pedestrians who die. I go walking in the street at 6 in the morning, and you see cars smashed to smithereens all over."
Police say the fines for ignoring crosswalks -- about $3 -- are so low that the "I Let Pedestrians Pass" windshield signs are unlikely to help.
"It's too late to teach them anything. We should fine them. We should punish them," said a traffic warrant officer working the main Moscow ring road last week who gave only his first name, Ilya. "Not only does no one ever stop for pedestrians, they honk at them."
But pedestrians, he said, also share in the blame. Many cross mid-block, far from any designated crosswalks. "Naturally, that creates a dangerous situation," he said. "It's car against man, and you know who loses."