One on One: Putting the brakes on traffic deaths

Metuna general manager Orna Klein sees the country speeding down the highway to hell without a seatbelt.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
August 22, 2007 23:09
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'When we change our behavior on the roads," says Orna Klein, "we'll also change our behavior on line at the supermarket." For the past five years, Klein, a retiree from the Prime Minister's Office, has been the general manager of the non-profit organization for road safety, Metuna. The name - a derivative of derech metuna (a moderate "path," or play on the Hebrew word for road) - does anything but describe the situation as it stands. Or perhaps "zooms" would better describe the kind of driving that has left thousands of Israelis dead since the establishment of the state, and a far greater number injured, many of whom end up wheelchair-bound or worse. "Speeding is not only an issue of kilometers per hour," asserts the 50-year-old mother-of-four (two of whom she inherited from her husband's first marriage). "It has to do with being in a hurry. It means talking on the phone while driving, so as not to waste time. It means rushing through a yellow light. It means tailgating, to try and get the driver in front of you to move out of your way." "In other words," she explains, "speeding is a state of mind." Exacting change, then - particularly in the current political, cultural and social climate - would seem to be more than merely a tall order. Klein agrees. "Road safety is a serious, comprehensive social issue which demands a comprehensive approach," she insists. "A combination of law enforcement, punishment, personal responsibility and education, all of which are sorely lacking when it comes to this subject." And making headway with the government has not been easy for the resident of Kochav Yair - home, as it happens, of Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Since being appointed to the job a little more than a year ago, however, Mofaz has yet to meet with his neighbor, in spite of his pledge to do so. This has not prevented the road-safety hound from pounding the proverbial pavement on the policy level, and causing the public to shift gears toward better awareness. "None of this can have an effect unless it is accompanied by action, however," warns Klein, during an hour-long Hebrew interview earlier this month, in the wake of the horror on Route 1, when a truck - whose driver had 195 previous traffic violations - crushed a car, killing a father and his five-year-old daughter, and seriously injuring the mother and wounding their six-year-old son. "Otherwise, it's like a message that goes in one ear and out the other." [Since this interview took place, many road accidents have taken place - the most serious of which involved the death of two young children on the Arava highway, when their father fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a semi-trailer.] Is it true that more people have been killed on the roads in Israel than in all the wars and terrorist attacks put together? Absolutely. More than 29,000 people have been killed on the roads. How is that possible, given the incessant warfare? I don't know how it's possible, but what it means is that it warrants at least as serious attention as war. Nobody questions the money allocated to security and defense. Yet road carnage is viewed as secondary - and the Transportation portfolio is considered so low on the status scale that whenever someone is appointed transportation minister, he considers it a punishment. There are many reasons for the excessive road carnage, but the main one is that no comprehensive program has come along to tackle it. In places where such a program has been undertaken, there has been great success. In some countries - such as Australia, Scandinavia, England and now France - road deaths have been reduced by 50-60 percent. Here, we haven't even really begun. It sounds as though you hold the state responsible, rather than the drivers. Who really is to blame for the phenomenon? I can answer that with an analogy: draft-evasion. Everyone - including me - is critical of kids who evade their military service. But I ask how we got ourselves into this situation. When I was young, draft-evasion had a shameful stigma attached to it. How did that change? We're the same people; it's the same nation. The answer is that we're doing something wrong on the policy level. It's the government - i.e. the Education Ministry - that is not using its resources in the right place or giving the issue the right priority. This is how something can be both the responsibility of the government and the individual simultaneously. The tools have to be found to cause drivers to focus on what they're doing when they enter a car. For instance, if drivers knew that every time they exceeded the speed limit, they'd get caught and penalized, this would make a huge difference. If there were police all over the place and cameras and other means of keeping tabs on careless drivers, they - we - would all think twice before breaking the law. The problem is that there are few policemen and hardly any speed cameras, and the cameras there are barely work. Road safety is a serious, comprehensive social issue which demands a comprehensive approach - a combination of law enforcement, punishment, personal responsibility and education, all of which are sorely lacking when it comes to this subject. As in the recent case of the truck driver with 195 violations killing killing a father and his five-year-old daughter, and seriously injuring the mother and lightly wounding their six-year-old son? Exactly. That driver had been caught previously, and he wasn't punished. One of the judges he had come before is known to be very lenient in traffic cases. There is no uniformity on the bench where road carnage is concerned. Lack of uniformity on the bench is not restricted to traffic violations. That's true, but it is especially visible in these cases. One judge determined a drunk driver to be "inebriated but clear-headed." Examples like this abound. Our research has shown that there is no correlation between accidents and punishments. The judges' maneuvering room is so great that there's no way of causing drivers to to see the direct consequences of their actions - that A leads to B which leads to C. This is why we are now working on promoting "onshei motza" (minimum sentences) to limit judges' maneuvering room. So, he or she would have a kind of logbook of offenses and their required punishments. This doesn't mean that a driver's age, past record or health won't be taken into account to some extent. But not more than that. Can budgetary allocations contribute to your efforts? And if so, how? It took two years to establish the National Authority for Road Safety [NARS], after the Sheinin Committee [named for economist Ya'acov Sheinin who headed it] designed a program. Now, I don't agree with every aspect of it. But in 2005 the cabinet accepted its recommendations by an overwhelming majority. The new road safety authority would be independent of the Transportation Ministry, so that it would be able to operate properly. Now, two years later, when things are finally starting to happen, what does the government do? It cuts the budget it had earmarked for the authority by 30% - NIS 150 million. Imagine you were told to buy a house with a third less money than you had counted on. It's impossible. You can't just remove an arm or a leg, and expect the same level of functioning. [This week, Mofaz announced that he would somehow come up with that money. Klein says this is unacceptable for two reasons: The first is that the NARS is supposed to be the body that supervises the goings-on in the Transportation Ministry, and therefore must be completely independent of it. The second is that, without the original full sum of NIS 550 million promised the NARS acknowledged legally in the state budget, there is no guarantee that the money will be forthcoming in the future, when Mofaz could be long gone as transportation minister.] Does this mean it will be impossible for the NARS to do any good? Not impossible, but it will have to forfeit many aspects of the program. I'm not the NARS's defense attorney. I'm a private citizen who heads a non-profit organization. Still, we joined forces with a body called Action Forum - a forum of non-profit organizations and private citizens who care about road safety - and one of our efforts is to prevent the NIS 150 million cut in the NARS budget. It's such a small percentage of the overall state budget. Let's face it: If a decision is made tomorrow to raise MKs' salaries by that amount, that sum would be found very quickly. Which shows what priority the fight against road carnage is given. You make it sound as though road safety is being ignored. Yet, it has been part of the school curriculum for years; commercials on the radio and TV abound; teenagers can be heard selecting a designated driver before going to parties and bars; and in the IDF, soldiers are lectured repeatedly on the dangers of driving while tired when on furloughs. The IDF, indeed, is exemplary on this score; public awareness has risen tremendously over the past few years; and the organization Or Yarok (green light) has produced marvelous ad campaigns. However, none of this can have an effect unless it is accompanied by action. Otherwise, it's like a message that goes in one ear and out the other. Yes, young people know that they have to fasten their seat belts. But they rarely buckle up in the back seat. Metuna has just finished producing a film precisely for this reason. In it, I used a young guy who was seriously injured in a car accident, partly for the purpose of showing kids that sometimes death is the preferable end result of a car accident - however terrible this sounds - and partly to show that it's enough for one person in a car not to be wearing his seat belt for others to get hurt. Because while he's being thrown from the impact of a crash, he can bump into the head of another passenger. In other words, it's not enough to talk about the issue. The fact is that people still behave recklessly on the roads. Do such scare tactics work - or do they deaden the senses? I'm not a psychologist, and I've heard opinions supporting both. So, when I work with young people, I show them different types of ad campaigns, and ask them which work best on them. Some people are more affected by horror stories; others are more influenced by subtler messages. I believe that in order to influence everybody, we have to employ all types of methods. Do men drive differently from women? Men often say that women shouldn't be allowed behind the wheel. What do the statistics indicate? It annoys me when men say that. In the first place, statistics show that women are involved in fewer accidents. Men will tell you this is because women are on the road less frequently. There is some truth to this. But, just as there is something called a "metrosexual" male, I think this term could be applied to females as well. I'm a confident driver, while some men I know are not. Furthermore, some women are extremely rude and aggressive behind the wheel. Speaking of which, is there a rise in road rage in this country? That goes under the category of violence, which has certainly risen over the years. Israelis returning from India and Nepal like to report that in spite of there being no traffic laws and total confusion on the roads in those countries, there are no major accidents. Is that true? I've heard that, too. I don't know whether it's true, but in places where there are no good roads (and, in spite of everybody's saying we don't have good roads in Israel, it's a complete exaggeration) - where they are unpaved and rocky, it is impossible to drive as fast and as wild as it is on a highway. Moreover, countries with modern cars and proper roads could not function without traffic laws. Isn't it true, though, that in Italy, for example - where people drive very fast - speed limits are recommended, yet not mandatory? True, but they have a different form of traffic laws, involving respect and eye contact among drivers. That wouldn't work in Israel. What's more, there are many myths about this issue. For instance, Israelis like to point to Germany as an example to be emulated. But the truth is that Germans drive fast on highways, but when they get into an accident, there are no survivors. Which brings me to the issue of speed. My attitude toward it is slightly different from that of other people. I see it as something much more comprehensive. Speeding doesn't only mean 140 kilometers per hour on a highway. Inside a city, even 50 kph can constitute major speeding. In a car crash, the force of the impact is determined by the speed. You will sustain a different level of injury at 20 kph than you would at 30 kph or 40. If you throw a watermelon to the ground, the higher the starting point, the more severe the blow. It's a matter of physics. Furthermore, speeding is not only an issue of kilometers per hour. It has to do with being in a hurry. It means talking on the phone while driving, so as not to waste time. It means rushing through a yellow light. It means tailgating, to try and get the driver in front of you to move out of your way. In other words, speeding is a state of mind. And the irony of it is that the driver who zooms and weaves in an out of traffic usually arrives at the same time as the slower, more careful driver. Is it possible to alter a collective state of mind? Can you give an example of an area in which such a tall order has been met? Wild flowers. Though it has always been forbidden to pick them, people used to do it all the time. When I was a little girl, a campaign was launched to put a stop to it, and it succeeded. Israelis no longer pick wild flowers. And though we have become a more violent, less civic-minded society, I still believe we can and must find a way. The "24/7" campaign - for a whole day without car accidents - was really successful. The beauty of it was that it was the brainchild of a group of 30-somethings (I was the only head of an organization among them - young professionals in investment banking, hi-tech, advertising and other areas - who cared deeply about this issue and wanted to work together to solve it. Look, we all sense that something is rotten in the country and wrong with our leadership. I believe that our behavior on the roads is a microcosm of the rest of society. This is why I consider it a grave social problem. Are you saying that rectifying our behavior on the roads would have a salutary effect on the rest of society? Yes. When we change our behavior on the roads, we'll also change our behavior on line at the supermarket. But there are people who are extremely considerate and gentle in their daily lives who become aggressive behind the wheel. Yes, there's that, too. There are kids here who are really well-disciplined in school and involved in youth movements who behave badly and irresponsibly when they're driving. We become criminals on the road. What's your opinion of Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz? Unfortunately, I've never met him, in spite of attempts on my part to do so, and in spite of the fact that he lives in my community. About a month and a half ago, I received a nice letter from him, praising Metuna's work and saying that he told his office to set up an appointment with us. I haven't heard anything since. I assume he's doing his job. When he speaks publicly, he conveys positive messages. But I don't see any change. He's not entirely to blame. The new NARS that was supposed to have been up and running by now could have been under way a year and a half ago. This is partly the fault of the Transportation Ministry. In any case, how can one judge Mofaz's performance a mere year into his tenure? How can someone be expected to make a revolution in such a short time? In fact, given our political system, it's a wonder he's still even on the job. What I can say is that Mofaz - like everybody else in this country - is big on talk, and talk is cheap. Where road safety is concerned, there are the same people mouthing the same statements over and over in conferences and committees and inquiry commissions. But nothing is happening. Which is not surprising, since transportation ministers come and go, but the civil servants in the Transportation Ministry remain constant. Take the issue of school buses, which I began researching after the tragic accident at Kfar Yona [She is referring to the June 30, 2004 incident in which three children were killed and 54 others injured, six seriously, after their school bus crashed into an IDF jeep at the Kfar Yona junction near Netanya.] What I learned only served to reinforce my sense of how systems in this country operate. It turned out that a committee, headed by Yehuda Elbaz - a senior department head at the Transportation Ministry - had sat for three years, two and a half of which prior to the Kfar Yona accident, for the purpose of reexamining the busing of children. Six months after the accident, I saw a draft of the committee's conclusions. I was shocked by what I saw. After all that time, the end result was that it was permissible to bus kids three to a seat without seat belts. In other words, after three years of meetings, the conclusion was that - other than minor adjustments - no change is necessary. A year later, we held a big demonstration at the site of the Kfar Yona accident. Yuli Tamir [who at the time was a Labor MK, not yet education minister ] attended and said that everything had to be done to ensure the safety of children. She said that it was the Education Ministry's job to do everything in its power to teach and set an example to them. (That was two years ago. But recently, I sent a letter to Tamir, which she passed on to the woman in the Education Ministry in charge of the study of road safety in the schools. This morning, that woman answered me in such an appalling manner that I was totally taken aback. She asked me who I am and what kind of coalition I think I'm running -- as though it were the height of hutzpa that I was asking for cooperation. I mean, really, we're a volunteer organization asking to meet with the Education Ministry to promote safety on school buses, and the response is anger? Why not take advantage of us and work together?) Anyway, after seeing the Elbaz draft, we began to lobby the Knesset. At some point it became clear that the only way to get anything done was through the pressure of a group effort. So, I got all the groups involved in the issue together - such as Or Yarok, Beterem, Women in Red, Yad Haniktafim - as well as representatives from regional councils, which own the yellow school buses. We struggled and struggled, even bombarded the press. But the media wasn't really interested. Until one day, when Channel 2's political correspondent Udi Segal came upon one of our press releases, and was personally moved by it, because he lives not far from where the Kfar Yona accident took place. So he phoned me and decided to do a big TV piece - which made much more noise than anything I could have done. A week after the broadcast, more serious discussions began in the Knesset. This is how we managed to lower the number of children allowed to be on a bus to 52, so that every child would have a seat. [There were 69 kids on the school bus that crashed.] Then we managed to deal with the issue of seat belts. Together with Or Yarok, Metuna turned to the now defunct Shinui party, which received NIS 700 million to approve the state budget. Shinui earmarked this money for many different things, including road safety. So I wrote to Tommy Lapid and asked him to give the road-safety money to something specific. Shinui then gave our coalition NIS 15 million, allowing us to decide where the money goes. We used it to have seat belts installed in all the yellow school buses, and to purchase 10 additional buses - thus proving to the government that when there's a will to get something done, there's a way. Here I have to give an honorable mention to [Knesset Finance Committee chairman] Likud MK Gilad Erdan. Even though I'm not on his side politically, I consider him an exemplary Knesset member. He took the issue of road safety and not only studied it carefully, but he is actually doing something about it. He's simply excellent. Would that all MKs behaved similarly. Finally, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, what are your expectations for the near future? I would like to take the opportunity to call on the public to stop waiting for things to change. We need to make it happen, first by taking a stand, and then by joining hands and making our voices heard. We must to a stop to people's dying for nothing on our roads. Help us by joining the struggle.

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