politics : culture : economics

Bad driving and the Turkish state

In Turkey on June 10, 2010 at 11:19 am

In his 2008 book Traffic Tom Vanderbilt found space for only one mention of Turkey, but it was an interesting one:

“The British playwright Kenneth Tynan observed in his diaries, after seeing the wreckage of a car crash in Turkey, ‘Bad driving—i.e. fast and reckless driving—tends to exist in inverse ratio to democratic institutions. In an authoritarian state, the only place where the little man achieves equality with the big is in heavy traffic. Only there can he actually overtake.’”

I’m not sure how much real scrutiny Tynan’s theory bears, but if you know Turkey and have driven here it’s hard not to recognise something at least intuitively plausible in his observation.

Traffic tells us things about the way we live. And the particular intensity of Turkish traffic is vividly expressive of some of the ways in which people here relate both to each other and to the laws that are supposed to govern their interactions. There are very few rules of the road that are dutifully upheld. Getting from A to B frequently means enduring a Hobbesian war of all against all, with the nastiness and brutishness that entails.

Amid the excessive speed and the countless near-misses there are moments when it’s hard not to be awed by the way the traffic functions. It can be an impressive spectacle. But those moments are rare, and much of the time the traffic does the opposite of functioning—accidents are commonplace and many of them are serious. Encouragingly, the rate of road deaths has declined over the past decade but it remains very high.

Between 2000 and 2008 the volume of traffic increased more rapidly in Turkey than elsewhere in Europe, rising by 24 per cent to 69.8 billion vehicle kilometres (vkm). During the same period, the annual number of road deaths fell by 23 per cent to 4,236. Put these together and you get a sharp drop in the rate of road fatalities, from 98 deaths per billion vkm in 2000 to 61 eight years later.

Taken in isolation, this is very positive news. It reflects, among other things, the development of the road network and the involvement of international organisations, such as the World Bank which worked with the Turkish government on a major road improvement and traffic safety project. But the sharp drop in the Turkish fatality rate distracts from how far above European averages it remains.

The data are patchy (many countries record deaths per 100,000 of population rather than the more useful deaths per billion vkm), but courtesy of the International Transport Forum (an organisation within the OECD) we can find comparable numbers for the following group of countries: Belgium, Finland, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

The contrasts between these countries and Turkey is stark. Where Turkey had a fatality rate of 98 per billion vkm in 2000, this group had an average of just 23. What’s more, they matched Turkey’s impressive rate of improvement in the years that followed. By 2008 their average rate of road deaths was down to 14 per billion vkm.

Which means that for every kilometre you travel on a Turkish road you’re still four times more likely to end up dead than if you were travelling in these nine other European countries. Perhaps the Turkish state might think of spending less time controlling traffic on the internet and more time controlling traffic on the roads?

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