ISTANBUL // Turkey is cracking down on driving schools and road-test inspectors, amid claims that some students passed their exams after two minutes and others do not know how to find the handbrake.
There were 1.2 million traffic accidents on Turkish roads in 2011, in which 3,835 people died. The rate of 24 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles was about twice as high as in Germany or in the United States, and roughly on a par with China.
As the result of a sustained economic boom and growing private incomes, the number of cars on the country's roads has doubled from 8.6 million in 2002 to 17 million this year.
In an attempt to lift Turkey's driving-school regulation to European Union standards, the education ministry in Ankara, which oversees instructors, has intensified inspections of schools and worked out new rules.
"At the moment, the test means that you are going down a straight road for a few hundred metres, and then the inspector says: 'Right, you can stop now, congratulations,'" said Fikret Gursoy, the head of the Ridvan driving school in Istanbul.
Mr Gursoy said he had witnessed one case where a learner from another school did not even know where the handbrake was or what to do with it. The applicant still passed the test. "It's a disgrace," he said.
To attract customers in a highly competitive market that has lacked proper official oversight for years, Turkey's 3,300 driving schools cut corners and bend the rules, resulting in many accidents that would never happen with a better training system, say Mr Gursoy and other experts.
The ministry's draft of new rules, published last month, said driving tests will last 30 minutes, up from the current 15 minutes, and candidates will be required to undergo 12 hours of practical training, instead of 10 hours at present.
Instructors will face tighter controls by authorities, such as unannounced inspections, as well as mandatory training even after having won a license as an instructor.
Even the current regulations are a far cry from what goes on in Turkish driving schools and on Turkish roads at the moment. Experts such as Mr Gursoy say many driving tests last only two minutes.
The lack of enforcement of traffic rules is another problem. More than 11 per cent of the 172,000 drivers involved in accidents on Turkish roads in 2011 did not have a driver's licence, according to the most recent figures released by the statistics office in Ankara.
Ihsan Celik, the head of the Gurcelik driving school in Istanbul, said one reason was that the authorities, including the education ministry's own inspectors carrying out the tests and the police, were ignoring their own rules.
"If someone is caught without a licence, not much happens," he said.
Last year, an unnamed driving instructor told Turkish media that some education ministry inspectors overseeing driving tests were handing out driving licences at the rate of 100 per hour. One inspector in Istanbul who imposed higher standards and failed 90 per cent of applicants was removed by the education ministry, the instructor said.
But things are about to change, the government insists.
Mehmet Kucuk, the education ministry official in charge of driving schools, last month said that his bureaucrats had conducted more inspections of driving courses since the start of the year than had been undertaken in the past 25 years altogether.
The results paint a bleak picture. After visiting nearly 1,700 schools, inspectors launched formal investigations against 740 of them because of violations of rules for practical lessons and another 581 probes because of shortcomings in theoretical courses, Mr Kucuk said. He threatened to close down repeat offenders.
But Mr Celik said many companies were forced to take shortcuts to stay afloat. Cost-cutting was a must because of the large number of schools that had opened in recent years.
"There are schools that guarantee a licence for 250 lira [Dh507]," Mr Celik said. A course for a private car license at his school was just under 600 lira, he added.
"Driving schools have shot up like mushrooms around Istanbul," he said. If one school tried to keep to the rules, people would simply go to the next one. Mr Celik said he hoped the new wave of inspections would thin out the field so that good schools could flourish.
Mr Gursoy said that although he tried his best to train drivers well, the system did not prepare drivers adequately for everyday traffic, let alone tricky situations.
Many drivers were unaware of even the most basic rules, he said.
"If there's a crossing and a driver sees another car coming from the right, the drivers wave at each other to work out who can go first," he said.
Some candidates take informal training outside driving schools to prepare for the test.
Hasan Ceylan, a 24-year-old waiter, said he learnt to drive in the countryside in his home region of Konya, in central Anatolia. He took his written test in March and faces his driving test tomorrow.
"It will be easier for me than for others, because I could practise at home," he said.
While some people, such as Mr Gursoy hope the new inspection routine and the new regulation will change things for the better, others remain sceptical.
Mr Ceylan pointed out that the latest quality drive by the ministry started after a new education minister, Nabi Avci, was appointed in January.
"I have been in this business for 20 years," he said. "Ministers come and go, rules come and go."