But as the emergency lane becomes more and more narrow, the speeding car mixes with the rest of the traffic. The other cars in traffic hear the sound of the siren and turn to the right and left, trying to make room for it to pass. You would think that the car with the siren on top -- as well as blinking lights -- was not just a civilian-plated vehicle, but an ambulance trying to get to the hospital. In any case, this vehicle -- which you might think, from all the noise and light it was emitting, was carrying bloodied, injured passengers -- wends its way through another hundred meters of traffic before entering the emergency lane again, and speeding onwards, disappearing from view. For drivers who hit the roads every day in Istanbul and Ankara, this is an ordinary thing, even a regular part of traffic.
Though technically forbidden by law -- the 2918 Highway Traffic Law’s 71st article -- these sirens and blinking lights on cars are used by mayors, their assistants, department heads, contractors working for the state, party heads and businessmen. Here is how the 71st article defines vehicles which have the right of way in traffic: “Life-saving vehicles, cars carrying injured passengers, or other passengers in dire situations, fire-fighting vehicles, police vehicles following suspects or municipal vehicles trying to protect the peace, official vehicles heading to the site of a traffic accident or trying to follow someone who has committed a criminal act, vehicles trying to protect the general safety of traffic, vehicles carrying passengers who are charged with civil defense duties, vehicles that are charged with protecting others and vehicles that are officially under protection.”
According to this same definition, mayors and political parties’ various city and provincial leaders need to obtain permission from the Ankara Traffic Services Department Headquarters to use these rooftop sirens. But the truth is, most of these people never feel the need to try and obtain any permission. Things like sirens, rooftop lights and blinking lights are used frequently in countries where the political situation is oppressive. While you will never see things like this used in European countries, the situation changes when you head east. Some countries have fines meant to deter this behavior. For example, in Georgia the penalty for using a siren on your car illegally starts with a five-month prison sentence.
Original TL 150, Chinese-made TL 15
A device attached to the license plate of a vehicle with blue and red LED lights is called a “çakar” in Turkey. As for the rooftop lights, they are called “damla” here. You can actually find these “accessories” at almost every auto shop out there, and selling and/or having these accessories added to your car is not considered a crime. It is only when you begin to actually use them in traffic that you are breaking the law. Chinese-made versions of these products are sold at very cheap prices. While normally a rooftop light is sold for TL 150, a Chinese model is just TL 15.
Kadıköy Mayor Selami Öztürk doesn’t use a rooftop light, or allow those working under him to do so. He states: “We enforce the non-usage of the rooftop lights on all of our municipal vehicles, just as ordered by the directive from the Istanbul Governor’s Office. All of the drivers for the municipality are sensitive to this, and have been warned. I don’t even have such a device on my own official vehicle. I don’t feel the need. As it is, we always calculate where we need to go, and, keeping Istanbul traffic in mind, set out when we need to in order to arrive in time. So, no, I don’t use this device, either on my own civilian car or on my official vehicle.”
According to İsmail Cesur, whose company manufactures rooftop lights, blinkers and license plate lights: “For 30 years now, we have been manufacturing rooftop lights, sirens and ‘çakar.’ The law related to the use of these devices came in after the 1980 coup, and it had some changes made to it in 1999. We do not mount these devices onto unofficial vehicles, but of course the sales points where our products are sold do not really have any way of checking on this. It is largely contractors working for the state who use these devices. We sell the bulk of our products in Ankara and Istanbul. In Ankara, it seems almost every car out there has a siren! Our business has increased around 1,000 percent in recent years.”