Three decades on we see enormous improvements indeed -- high-tech buses, brand new motorways, state-of-the-art refreshment stops. Actually, I often refer to Turkey’s overland coach network as the most extensive (and up to a certain extent most comfortable, too) in all of Europe! So why are there still so many incidents, including last week’s fatal crash a few hours away from the Turkish capital Ankara?
Writing about accidents leading to the loss of life carries the risk of entering terrain often bordering on journalistic sensationalism as, after all, the sad news to be reported includes how the accident happened, witness accounts of the horrors they have lived through and news of how many innocent people sustained injuries! What’s more, in our age of 24/7 breaking news and Internet-enabled smart-phone cameras chances are a photo of the crash site, including victims, will be online moments after the incident. So let us try to stick with the facts only.
Over the years I have traveled frequently on Turkish roads. Initially I was an advocate for the country’s overland coach company network, as in particular along the Ankara-İstanbul trunk route motorway conditions and journey times compared favorably with airlines. More affordable fare structures were an asset, too. The more you travel, however, the more you see. Let me run you through a number of less positive things I eventually had to cope with.
Drivers chatting on their mobile phones whilst on the road. Drivers constantly talking with the male assistant until he would do one of his tea and coffee service rounds! Overhead lockers not normally of the variety that can be closed, hence items including laptops could fall on passengers’ heads. With some companies, old and apparently less frequently serviced buses. Over national holidays non-liveried replacement buses with less comfort, and perhaps fewer safety features, too. Overtaking at all costs, and buses that would break down in the middle of nowhere! Perhaps the most shocking incident of all was what occurred on supposedly one of Turkey’s leading operators when the driver -- judging by his abrupt reactions and changing of lanes and just about stopping before hitting the car in front of us -- apparently almost fell asleep.
If we then add the serious accidents which have occurred, including this week’s crash involving another reputable company (not the one I mentioned above), one cannot but wonder whether the lessons learned from the 1980s onwards have once more been forgotten in the name of saving a few minutes of journey time, or in the name of profit, or both.
We have to address not just the state of affairs with regard to Turkey’s overland coach companies. The government must find a way to make sure that whilst it is building new motorways linking all four corners of the country (I recently saw the Şanlıurfa-Diyarbakır motorway, as well as the already completed stretches of the İstanbul-İzmir motorway, and am impressed by asphalt quality, layout and general near-perfect conditions) drivers and professional chauffeurs employed by companies must simply be better educated.
I am not putting the blame on anyone in particular, and although flying more frequently these days instead of taking the bus, as new routes are added all the time and advance purchase fares often only cost a few lira more than a bus for the same route, what I am really looking forward to is the completion of Turkey’s high-speed rail network as the most environmentally viable alternative to both the coach and the short distance plane.
Driving instructors must somehow upgrade the way they prepare future driving license holders for life on the road. Perhaps examinations should be more stringent. New roads alone will not eradicate accidents from Turkish roads. Speed checks could, more traffic lights would, limiting the maximum weight trucks can legally transport (small lorries, for example, no more than five tons instead of twice that amount) might help, too. Driving on a public road is no wildcard for involuntarily taking someone else’s life away. Last week’s fatal crash must finally lead to urgent action!