Thursday, 4 April 2013

The infernal combustion engine

Apparently the first recorded car accident in Greece happened at 11.30am on Sunday, March 4, 1907. And the most recent could well be taking place while you read this posting or soon after or maybe just before. In other words driving in Greece presents certain hazards, to put it politely.

I'm not making this up. European Commission statistics show that Greece is riding high in the sort of top ten you really don't want to take part in. For deaths caused by road accidents in EU countries, Greece comes in fourth behind Lithuania, Romania and Poland. Road deaths are decreasing in Greece but still there are 92 road deaths per million population. (If you didn't know, Greece's population is just over 11 million.) Somehow it doesn't surprise me that the European countries with the lowest road deaths per million count are Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark where there are 30 deaths per million caused by road accidents.

That first Greek road accident just over a century ago saw a 25-year-old woman pedestrian knocked down and killed in Athens by one or maybe two cars. There is some confusion because one of the cars was driven by a Government minister and the other by a member of the royal family and it has been suggested that a certain amount of "reputation management" went on. Be that as it may, in the wake of this accident it was reported that the Commander of the Police in Athens summoned all seven, yes seven, of the city's drivers and car owners for a bit of a talking to. Newspapers at the time commented that if seven cars could lead to this sort of tragedy what would happen "if seven became 70?" Such an innocent question.

The lamppost never stood a chance. Not the first car accident
in Greece, but a great picture.
As things stand, Greece is 13th in the world for car ownership per head of population with 624 cars (and car-like vehicles) per 1,000. Top is San Marino which has 1,263 cars per 1,000 people - what are they doing with all those cars? - Monaco is second with 863 cars per 1,000 and the USA is third with 797 per 1,000. The UK comes in 34th with 519 cars per 1,000. The UK figure has no real bearing but I put it because I am English and it's my blog (so there). I know statistics should always be handled carefully and the bright sparks among you may well question the validity of little San Marino's place at the top of the table, but even so what the figures do show is that there are a lot of people in Greece with cars.

All of this brings me to the thorny issue of driving in Greece. If you should never question a man's prowess in bed or behind the wheel then it's probably a safe bet that slagging off another country's driving standards is a bit of a no-no. But taking my lead from my former trade I don't make the news, I just report it. The following observations relate not just to car drivers but also to people on two-wheelers and are, of course, limited to the small island where I live. Also they are not necessarily meant in a critical way.

Coming from the UK where motorists are quite strictly policed, and I'm not getting in to an argument about the accuracy of that statement nor whether it is a good or bad thing, let's just take it as a given, it comes as something of a shock to see some of the activities of my fellow road users here on Skopelos. For a while I genuinely believed that there was no helmet law for riders of motorbikes and mopeds. When I saw someone wearing a crash helmet it did make me stare a bit. Later I was told helmets are compulsory, but the law is rarely, if ever, enforced. I have a theory this is something to do with deeply held Greek beliefs about freedom. Similarly it is against the law to use your mobile phone while driving, but guess what...?

While car drivers have the benefit of their vehicle's bodywork to screen what they do, riders of mopeds are much more on show and so I have been frankly lost in admiration for their ability to ride while at the same time doing so many other things, many of which, I suspect, are frowned upon by the law. Early morning riders naturally need to carry their takeaway cup of coffee with them, and smoke a cigarette, and give their friends a quick call on the mobile. Some also like to ride alongside their friends and carry on an animated conversation. In Greece no opportunity should be passed up to talk to someone.

Mopeds are extraordinary workhorses and probably for many people have replaced the use of donkeys and mules. I have seen what I can only presume was a moped underneath a massive pile of fodder being taken out to an olive grove to feed sheep. The often elderly gents riding along with a pruning saw - a pole about 12ft long with a curved blade at one end - slung over one shoulder somehow always bring to mind "days of old, when knights were bold". It also surprises me how many people you can fit on a moped. I've seen a family of four, but admittedly the children were small and one was standing.

As for speed limits, I asked one local driver what the speed limit was on the road near my house to which he replied "I'm not sure." He's not alone, some people go fast, some go quite sedately, again, I think, we're back to that Greek concept of freedom.

And before you think I'm adopting a superior position when it comes to driving standards on Skopelos, I have to confess to having once reversed in to a car being driven by a policeman. Yes, it does sound ridiculous, and the full explanation is quite complicated and doesn't get away from the fact that it was ALL MY FAULT. There, I've said it. Fortunately, it was at very low speed, nobody was hurt, no vehicle was damaged and it was not a marked police car. This latter fact probably explains my growing feeling of horror immediately after the bump when I saw the man getting out of the car behind me was wearing a uniform and had a gun on his hip. Reader, I grovelled.

I am glad to say that apart from my unfortunate meeting with the local police, I have never seen an accident on Skopelos, but they do happen and evidence of that is plain for all to see. Basically this island has one main road which goes from top to bottom and along that road at all too frequent intervals are little shrines, which mark the site of road accidents. I believe the idea is that if you are killed in the crash your family puts up the shrine and if you survive then putting up the shrine is your responsibility. Either way, there are too many of them. So, in the words of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus: "Let's be careful out there".

Roadside shrine: Some are more ornate, others less so. You
would hope they'd serve as a reminder to drive carefully.


  1. As you know Mark, I have lived in Greece so I know exactly what you mean in this blog. I have seen some fairly alarming stuff on the roads in that fabulous country - but would claim former Yugoslavia was worse...

  2. It comes as some small relief, seeing as I am in Greece, to think that there are other countries where driving standards are worse/not quite as good!


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