Rules of the Road

Last week I went on my first adventure in my new car. A company car. Never having worked for any one institution at this level before (bar 2 years as an Assistant Producer in BBC History and 1 in Arts at LWT) I had never previously imagined that I would ever have a company car. But now I have one and I have to say I like it.  Especially since it is a whizzy automatic VW Jetta with speedy acceleration and lots of gadgets.

I was fine about driving it…until everyone I told cried out that Turkish drivers were crazy and therefore I was crazy too for taking them on. Yes I know it can be tricky to drive on the left I mean right hand side when I am used to the left and yes I admit it is sometimes hard to cross the road here let alone drive on it but I hadn’t considered that driving here would be anything other than a little bit challenging at times, nothing that would be a major problem if I kept my wits about me.

Ismail, one of the Al Jazeera drivers, took on the brave task of taking me out for my first drive one lunchtime. All seemed manageable, even adjusting to using one foot on the automatic, until we got to Beyoglu. Here the roads narrow, the way winds, the potholes deepen and pedestrians, motorcycle couriers, food carts, peddlars, dogs and stray cats career all over the road, treating it as an extension of the pavement (well, it kind of is actually – there are very few decent pavements in this part of town).  These challenging conditions highlighted one issue.  For some reason driving on the left of the car when I am used to the right made me uncertain about how wide I/it was and I tended to bear too much to the right at times, much to the detriment of a few curbs and the shock of a few unsuspecting pedestrians. Ismail took to the wheel to show me how it should be done for a bit and it felt like we were on a Grand Prix circuit not a bumpy backstreet in the busiest part of town. If that’s how it’s meant to be done then I’d better get with it quick….Beyoglu is my stamping ground.

Broken in and encouraged by the fact that I hadn’t ended up in a mangled heap and taken Ismail with me on I embarked on my first journey out of Istanbul last week. Sat nav set up and back-up map supplied by Ismail I set off west onto the highway out of the city and headed towards the Dardanelles. Make that crawled to begin with in heavy Istanbul traffic. Traffic jams are manageable – there is a limited amount of craziness that can emerge when you can’t move – but it was on the freeway that peoples’ true colours were revealed. Overtaking in the inside lane (that’s the right lane here), indicating just for the hell off it (one man alternated between right and left to make it even more fun), seeing how long you can travel sitting bang-slap-in-the-middle-on-top-of the lane divider markers, hiding in the dark without your lights on – they tried it all. If there is a highway code here then it looks like not everyone is using the same copy.

Driving in Britain, where we all abide by the one Highway Code religiously all the time of course, is a very different and much more predictable experience – even if terrible accidents still happen. But as I drove further west towards the Dardanelles I realized that in fact it’s rather liberating when no one expects you to follow the rules because that means you can do anything. You can get away with terrible driving – the kind that would leave other drivers spluttering and cursing and that could end up with violent road rage or even fatalities in Britain. It crossed my mind that after at least a year of driving here I could go back to Britain with some rather bad habits.

But just before I resigned to myself to the fact that I was going to slip into evil driving ways, I thought I’d better check out the stats. A quick internet search threw up a article from just 4 days ago citing a report by Ankara University which says that there is one crash in Turkey every 29 seconds. That’s 2 a minute, 120 an hour and 2880 EVERY DAY. And counting…In 1965, a traffic accident took place every 36 minutes in Turkey. This figure was one every eight minutes in 1985, one every two minutes in 1995 and one every 52 seconds in 2005.

Some more hunting around for further info showed that in Turkey there are 68 deaths per year for every million inhabitants. That’s compared to 35.9 per million in Britain, still a lot of people but Britain in fact has one of the best records in the world for road casualties.  That means that I am just under twice as likely to die on the roads in Turkey as I am in Britain. Wish I hadn’t looked now.

And, taking the whole world into account, apparently around 4000 people are killed on the world’s roads everyday. That’s around one every 15 minutes. And it gets worse.  Fatalities are expected to increase by 65, yes 65, percent over the next 20 years.

On second thoughts, maybe I shouldn’t be throwing my copy of the Highway Code away just yet.