There is a lot of finger pointing going on in Greece in the wake of the horrible train crash, and rightly so because there is a lot of blame to go around. There are many causes being cited ranging from human error to decades of official neglect of the country’s railroads. The government minister for transport resigned, a rare occurrence for Greece. And the prime minister, to his credit, apologized publicly and pledged to fix things. His administration has made some headway in making the lumbering state bureaucracy more efficient, hopefully it will make some headway in addressing the shocking backwardness of the Greek railroads.
But there is also another, deeper underlying problem: a very low level of safety culture in Greece. Safety culture is an umbrella term used to describe shared attitudes, behavior, and practices in relation to taking risks and implementing safety measures. And it is something that goes beyond the responsibility of government and is the obligation of every citizen.
Anyone arriving from North America or Western Europe will notice a lax behavior toward safety in Greece as soon as they try and cross a street or ride in a vehicle. There are statistics to back up those first impressions. Greece is 5th highest among thirty European countries in the number of road fatalities per million inhabitants. The number of pedestrian deaths in Greece is second only to Italy among Western European countries. This is after having recorded a downward trend in those numbers over the past decade. And it’s not just on the roads, it is also in the hospitals. Greece had the highest number of health care related infections in all of Europe before the outbreak of the covid pandemic. Currently, the number of deaths from covid per million inhabitants in Greece is the 14th highest worldwide and the highest among European countries that were not part of the communist bloc.
There is more bad news. Greece has the highest incidence of drownings per 100,000 inhabitants among all Mediterranean countries, with Cyprus second. The appearance of lifeguards on a few Greek beaches frequented by tourists is a relatively recent phenomenon. Another unwelcome distinction for Greece is that it is second after Bulgaria among the European Union in the percentage of persons who smoke tobacco products. Greece also has a high incidence of persons who are overweight by European standards. Lastly, exit signs, so ubiquitous in buildings in many countries, are almost non-existent in buildings in Greece.
According to experts there is a correlation between safety culture and national culture. There are five elements with which they measure that relationship, which in layman’s terms can be described as the relationship of citizens with the government authorities, the degree to which they have the common good in mind, how much they are prepared to deal with uncertainties, how much they plan for the long term rather than the short term, and lastly the existence of a culture of hypermasculinity that fosters bravado and risk-taking. These factors shape how a country develops a shared set of core values and practices that determine the degree of safety practices it implements both in terms of government policy and the behavior of individuals. The more these qualities exist within a particular nation, according to this model, the more pronounced will be its sense of safety and the measures it implements.
I could not find any examples of this model having been applied to the Greek situation, but my own calculations do not yield very encouraging results. The attitude of the average Greek towards governmental authority is one of distrust and suspicion. The same could be said of the government’s attitude towards its own citizens. The philosopher Stelios Ramfos has spoken at length about how allegiance to the family or a small community has stood in the way of trust between citizens and government. The same applies to the understanding that everyone can benefit if they value the common good over that of themselves or their families. There is also an inability to anticipate uncertain outcomes, which is a symptom of a social and cultural conservatism that has been recorded in public opinion surveys.
As for the propensity of risk taking and trusting in fate – that was highlighted in the recent train crash. Apparently, the train driver was uncertain as to whether the train should proceed and decided to do so, saying “let’s go and wherever it takes us.” We will never know what the unfortunate man meant and what motivated his judgement at that crucial moment. But the phrase quickly became an internet meme which many saw as emblematic of a sense of deciding to act despite a lack of information, trusting in the abstraction of fate rather than on tangible facts. That and all those other cultural reflexes mentioned above need reining in, so that a more safety-conscious society can be created.