How NOT to prevent road accidents

How NOT to prevent road accidents

Turkish news channel NTV ran a story on Oct. 7. The story, read by a speaker on the radio, sounded quite cohesive, logical and consistent in a country where such news narratives are extremely rare.

According to the story, the Interior Ministry just released a directive to prevent road accidents. Very well. After all, 7,530 Turks died in road accidents in 2015, several times more than those who died in terror attacks in the same year.

The directive orders new measures designed to reduce the number of road accidents. That is good news. But how? By increasing the number and frequency of checkpoints “specifically at times and routes where drivers are believed to have the habit of drinking and driving.” That, too, is normal. The police in every civilized country routinely carry out checkpoint examinations against drinking and driving. All the same, the “Turkishness” about the story was something else.

The Interior Ministry’s directive, according to the NTV report, said the new check point controls against drinking and driving would be performed between 10 pm and 2 am on weekends. There is nothing unusual about that. Those are the good hours to catch drivers with drinking habits. But then the story went on to say that the Interior Ministry’s statistics revealed that most road accidents on weekends – the target days of checkpoints - occurred between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. So the police will start checking drunken drivers two hours after the worst crash period of the day has passed.

In fact, the statistics that tell us most accidents occur at times when drivers are not generally believed to be drunken and driving should also tell us that if the Turkish state hopes to reduce road accidents it should do something better than breathalyzing drivers. After all, alcohol consumption is not the main problem regarding road accidents in Turkey, (though this is not to suggest alcohol controls should NOT be performed).

According to the State Highways Authority, there were 174,708 road accidents in 2014 that caused death and/or injury. Drunken driving was the cause of 2.44 percent of all those accidents that caused death and/or injury. In contrast, speeding was the primary cause of nearly 42 percent of the accidents. Failure to respect traffic lights at junctions caused nearly 13 percent of all accidents. In other words, speeding and ignoring traffic lights caused 17 and 5.3 times, respectively, more accidents causing death and/or injury than drunken driving in 2014.

Again, this is not to suggest that alcohol controls at checkpoints should not be performed. But it is to suggest that Turkey is not seeking a customized solution to its fatal road accidents, which caused 7,530 deaths last year. Alcohol checkpoints, in Turkey’s case, look like a doctor telling an obesity patient that he should first and foremost stop drinking his daily glass of wine in order to drop from 165 kilograms to 80 kilograms. The dozen portions of kebab and five pizzas he consumes daily can be looked at later.

Per capita alcohol consumption in Turkey is barely 1.5 liters per year, compared to 8 to 12 liters in most western European countries. To compare, road accidents per 100,000 inhabitants per year are at 5.4 in Austria and at 27.4 in Saudi Arabia. Per capita alcohol consumption, meanwhile, is at 10.3 liters per year in Austria and it is zero in Saudi Arabia. Apply the same logic and see the comparative road accident fatality and per capita alcohol consumption figures in Bangladesh (or Pakistan) and Switzerland you will get similar results. That will tell you that alcohol-obsessive traffic checks are not the panacea.

Once again, Turkey has the wrong diagnosis and wrong cure for a social disease.