A hipster with a faux hawk and a “Members Only” jacket stands with his hands behind his back, a strong whiff of liquor on his breath, waiting to take a breathalyzer on the southbound access ramp of the Ayalon Freeway on Thursday night. He'll fail the test by a country mile, but not without sticking to his story - that he didn't drink anything, or only had a quarter of a beer, actually a shot too, maximum two beers.
It's White Night in Tel Aviv and tens of thousands of mainly young Israelis (who if you're walking in their midst feel like hundreds of thousands, maybe millions) from across the country are meandering around the city drunk and getting drunker till the wee hours of the morning. Like Yom Ha'atzmaut or Purim, White Night is a big night for the traffic police, as Israelis drive into the city from Holon, Rishon, Petach Tikvah and beyond (Israel's version of the “bridge and tunnel” crowd), heading back at ungodly hours with usually more than a few shots of arak and vodka in their tank.
This year the weekend of White Night corresponded with an operation the national traffic police launched to mark the beginning of summer vacation, meant to fight drunk and reckless driving on Israel's roads. On Saturday evening, police announced that they had ticketed 199 people for drunk driving and suspended the licenses of 265 drivers stopped for traffic violations. The operation began Thursday, when all of the traffic police's 80 motorcycle cops and hundreds of patrol cars fanned out across Tel Aviv and beyond, pulling over drivers for sobriety tests. The Jerusalem Post tagged along Thursday night, during those foggy hours between 2 and 5 am.
Ch. Inspector Eran Mazuz, deputy head of the National Motorcycle Police unit, is the officer in charge of this road block on the southbound Ayalon entry ramp at the Shalom interchange next to Azrieli mall. He's got a mellow character, and doesn't seem to push his weight around too much when he pulls drivers over.
“People usually don't try to argue with you, it's only the really drunk ones who put up a fight, because they've got something to lose”, Mazuz says.
When they pull someone to the side of the road with their fluorescent wands, police first do a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS) test, then, if the driver tests positive for having imbibed alcohol, they give them a breathalyzer. That test is performed by blowing into a large metal box called the Drager Alcotest 7110. According to procedure, they have to wait 15 minutes to administer the test, potentially giving the driver a window of time to metabolize enough booze to get back under the legal limit, if they're on the borderline and can do some calisthenics on the roadside, or have a heavy pancake breakfast on hand.
Unfortunately, the police rarely do the field sobriety tests, so no Reno 911 moments could be caught on film. It appears the police stick to the machine tests and their hefty paper trails, because they're easier to hold up in court.
“There's no crime in Israel that requires more paperwork than this, look at these print-outs, it's like we're running a kiosk,” says First Sergeant Erez Kupperman, a 14-year-veteran of the traffic police.
Kupperman, a former officer in the YASSAM special patrol unit, looks like a bald, taller-than-usual Olympic shot-putter. Kupperman, who somehow fits on a police-issue Yamaha Super Tenere motorcycle, says from his vantage point on the road he sees crimes “coming at me all the time”, in particular Israelis texting or talking on their cell phones while driving. He's also seen a fair share of people reading newspapers or books, or eating full meals while in traffic.
He added that though Israel has seen a major increase in youth drinking in the years he's been a traffic cop “as much as the consumption has increased, the awareness of the dangers of drunk driving has increased too. You go to the [Tel Aviv] port late at night and you'll see cabs just lined up by the dozens. The press and the commercials have really helped, but there's still a lot of work to be done.”
The role of the press and NGOs is somewhat apparent on Thursday night. In addition to the Jerusalem Post, a Ch. 2 reporter shows up to film the sobriety tests for a piece on the nationwide operation, as does a cameraman for the road safety organization “Or Yarok”. At one point, a well-known photographer for a popular Israeli daily newspaper shows up too, stepping out of a cop car onto the side of the road. When asked where his camera is, he responded “my camera? They just pulled me over for drunk driving. I was shooting White Night earlier, now the cops want to make my night whiter [longer].”
The cameraman passed, and went home with only a slight detour.
In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in public awareness of the dangers of drunk driving, thanks in part to television and radio commercials encouraging the use of designated drivers. Nonetheless, the country still appears to have some ways to go before the punishment for drunk driving approaches that of places like the United States. Even after testing at two-and-a-half times the legal limit, the hipster with the faux hawk remained on the side of the road talking to police before he was finally let go with a court summons, his motorcycle on the way to an impound lot. No handcuffs were pulled out, and no one was on their way to spend the night in the drunk tank. The hipster, a 25-year-old employee of a Tel Aviv cafe could also get out of the charge during his court date, something he expressed certainty of. He was also confident that he could get the charge erased by his father – a senior officer in the National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem.
Those who can't beat the charge face a minimum thirty day suspended license and thirty days impounded vehicle, until they have their court date. In court, the judge can extend the suspension much longer, and can also assign jail time.
Still, in what is a bit surprising for those viewers from the United States, no one is arrested and taken to jail on site. As one cameraman at the roadblock said Friday night “in Israel you fail the sobriety test and then you sit and have a cigarette with the cop.”
It was interesting to watch on Friday night – the faux hawk heading off for the horizon with a summons in hand, hailing a cab to take him back to Rishon Letzion. When the officer who charged him was asked for a run-down of the incident, he said officers saw the man driving towards the roadblock before he pulled over and stopped the motorcycle, trying to hide and make it look like he didn't change his mind when he saw the cops. Officers went to question him and he said that his motorcycle was having trouble, and he'd been sitting there 45 minutes. The officer said he touched the engine, which was “scorching hot”, and at that point the questioning began.
“He reeked of alcohol, he probably drank a half a bottle of vodka. He said he hadn't drank at all though. Then he admitted he had a quarter of a beer, then maybe a shot too,” the cop laughed.
He added, “he then said he actually had one beer, they always say they only had one beer.”