On September 10, a grim milestone was marked: 30,000 Israelis had lost their lives in traffic accidents - 6,000 more than the total killed in all of the wars, terror attacks and violence since statistics began being recorded in 1960.
Last week, the worst accident in the country's history took place, when a bus transporting Russian tour guides from the Ovda Airport to Eilat plummeted down a desert ravine, killing 24 passengers. Traffic Police have arrested the bus driver.
"This is a country founded in the midst of the storm of war," says Shmuel Aboav, CEO of the Or Yarok road safety association. "It faces daily intensive security challenges. And yet the casualties from all of the wars don't reach the level of casualties on the roads."
He also claims that "2008 was a bad year" in this respect, citing an increase of 16 in the annual death toll - 433 this year, up from 417 last year. (This is Or Yarok's count; the police has not yet released this year's official figures.)
"This is a year in which the state has failed to reach its national goal of reducing the number of road fatalities," Aboav asserts. "The aim of the government is to reduce the casualties by 6 percent a year; we are not hitting this target."
Compared to 27 countries in Europe, Israel holds the second-to-worst place in its road-casualty rate. "Where child casualties are concerned, we hold first place in the number of minors aged 0-14 killed on the roads," Aboav says. "This year also saw an increase in the number of accidents involving dual-wheel vehicles like mopeds and bicycles."
According to Aboav, the phenomenon is particularly severe in the Arab community, which is responsible for 35%-40% of accidents annually - 95% of which involve children under the age of four. "There is a correlation between economic, educational and professional [status] and accident rates," Aboav rules. "And this requires attention."
Aboav's culprit for the downturn: the government.
"In the summer of 2008, the government cut NIS 200 million from the annual budget to deal with traffic accidents, slashing a NIS 550m. budget down to NIS 350m.," he explains.
TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS cost the country a stunning NIS 12 billion a year - NIS 4.5 million for every death, and NIS 900,000 per individual injured.
"This budget cut crimps our ability to apply the national plan for dealing with accidents," Aboav says, referring to the 2005 strategy formulated by a commission headed by economist Ya'acov Sheinin, whose recommendations to establish a Road Safety Authority independent of the Transportation Ministry were adopted by the government.
"The Traffic Police lost NIS 100 million - half of its budget. If it had the right means, I'm sure it would succeed," Aboav says.
Or Yarok calls for increased police enforcement, improved infrastructure, faster response times by rescue services and better vehicle-safety features.
Aboav is reluctant to "blame the public," but when pushed, he admits that the driving culture in this country is abysmal. "The lack of patience in Israeli society is visible on the roads. Overtaking, speeding and cutting others off all give people a sense of insecurity on the road. But the way to deal with this is through an enforcement of the law," he said.
NO ONE would agree with Aboav's last point more than Dep.-Cmdr. Yossi Hatukai, head of research for the Traffic Police. Still, Hatukai believes that successful enforcement has begun. "All in all, Israel is witnessing a positive trend in accident prevention," he asserts.
The growing population (which now stands at 7.3 million), increased number of drivers (3.2 million), vehicles on the roads (2.2 million), the 44-billion kilometers of combined road travel a year and 17,000 kilometers of roads (6,500 of which are intercity highways) should result in a higher rate of accidents, he says, but this has not happened.
"Thanks to the campaign to prevent accidents and the raising of public awareness, there is a downward trend in the number of total accidents, severe injuries and deaths over the past decade," he says.
But Hatukai does not mind that viewpoints contrary to his are often aired by organizations like Or Yarok, which he praises, saying that the perception of an increase in accidents only contributes to the PR campaign to increase road safety.
According to Hatukai, an annual average of 450 people die and 1,000 are injured in some 17,000 road accidents. About 60% of fatalities take place on intercity roads, where cars travel at high speed, leaving less room for error.
Without any question, Hatukai says, lack of caution and human error are the leading causes of road accidents. "The driver fails to pay attention for a few seconds, fiddling with the radio or cellphone. We've even seen drivers shave, put on makeup or solve crossword puzzles."
"If you're traveling at 90 or 100 kilometers an hour, you're covering 50 meters a second. A two-second lapse in attention is enough to take a car off the road or cause it to slam into another vehicle. The main result of driver error is a veering of the vehicle out of its lane."
Speed, too, he says, is a major factor. "Most accidents are preventable. If the driver had been a little more careful, driven 10 to 15 kilometers an hour more slowly, the accident would not have taken place," he says, citing the results of Traffic Police investigations.
In 2005, following the Sheinin Commission, the police launched a new strategy to focus on mitigating the human factor behind the vast majority of traffic accidents. "We used to write up 2 million tickets a year. Now we only write up one million, because we are focusing on traffic offenses that cause accidents," Hatukai says.
THE TRAFFIC Police break down offenses into four categories: those that directly cause accidents - like running a red light, overtaking irresponsibly or speeding; those that increase the severity of the outcome - like failure to wear a seat belt (though here, Hatukai claims, Israelis can be proud, as more than 90% buckle up); those that involve "bullying," and other characteristically aggressive behaviors - such as driving down the hard shoulder during a traffic jam, blocking off lanes and parking illegally; and those that include all the more minor offenses.
"We've instructed all Traffic Police patrol officers to focus on the first three groups," Hatukai says. "Each patrol car has its own designated group to look out for."
Some 85% of tickets now relate to the top three groups.
"In addition," he says, "over the past two years we have increased police-driver interaction. In 2008, there were 2 million meetings between Traffic Police and drivers. The aim is to stop and check the driver, examine the license and also to provide positive feedback if all is well. The officer will tell the driver, 'Well done. Your license is in order. Your headlights are on... If all drivers were like you, there would be fewer accidents.'"
Overall, Hatukai is optimistic. He says that despite the shortage in manpower, the Traffic Police is forging its way forward in the war on road accidents.
To this end, alcohol testing has seen a major boost - and an increase in digital speed cameras and an upgrade in technology are in the works for 2009.