Taking a conceptual detour

Derech Haim founders Moshe Konforty and Omer Ben-Dor promote road safety through personal responsibility and positive reinforcement.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
September 25, 2006 20:22
Taking a conceptual detour

derekh haim 298. (photo credit: )

'Who here drives when tired?" asks Moshe Konforty, 34, pacing across the stage, microphone in hand, stand-up-comic-style. Several hands shoot up from the bleachers. "How many of you drive while irritable?" Another show of hands. "And who among you curses at other drivers?" Again, hands are raised, though more hesitantly - this time accompanied by a murmur of nervous laughter. A few feet away from Konforty sits Omer Ben-Dor, 36, quietly awaiting his turn to speak, the multi-colored "hub caps" covering the spokes of his wheelchair gleaming in the overhead lights. When Konforty finishes his half-hour routine - an upbeat, humorous presentation pointing to what he says is an absolute truth: that none of us ever intends to be involved in a car accident - Ben-Dor wheels himself to the podium and tells his personal story. In 1994, at the age of 24, he recounts, "a tractor driver who didn't stop at a stop sign rammed into my car, killing the woman with me, and leaving me paralyzed from the waist down." "What happened to the tractor driver?" a member of the audience calls out - proving what Ben-Dor later claims is the question he is most frequently asked. But Ben-Dor does not answer it. "That is irrelevant to the discussion," he says, without the slightest hint of criticism or self-pity. "The only thing that matters is for each person here to look inside himself and consider whether he could just as easily have been in my place or in the place of the tractor driver. Physical injury is one kind of trauma; the kind suffered by the person who caused the injury is another. And the latter doesn't return to normal life any more than the former." The silence that ensues in the room is suddenly broken by a chorus of uncomfortable throat-clearing. THE VENUE is the auditorium of a well-known Jerusalem high school. The setting: a standard, start-of-the-academic-year gathering to discuss the curriculum, matriculation exams and the upcoming "first draft" into the army - a process that begins in the 11th grade. Another process about to begin for the kids whose parents and teachers are in attendance this evening is one that - like induction into the IDF - involves as much pride and anticipation as it does risk. Unlike the seriousness with which the schools have always taken preparing pupils for their move to the military, however, the fact that the very same teenagers are about to become licensed drivers has been relatively side-lined. This is in spite of the fact that, statistically, Israelis are in greater danger of losing life and limb behind the wheel of a car than they are behind enemy lines. That Konforty and Ben-Dor, cofounders of the project Derech Haim ("A Way of Life"), are the guest speakers at this particular parent-teacher conference is indicative of an increasing public awareness of the need to nip the phenomenon of road carnage in the bud. In other words, to create a change in consciousness and climate in this country by reaching people when they're young - and by showing their parents and other adult role-models how crucial it is for them to set an example. "We're here to teach a 'way of life,'" says Konforty. "Not how to pass the Motor Vehicles Bureau test, but how to behave the day after, and forever after." KONFORTY AND Ben-Dor met in 1995 at The National Council for the Prevention of Road Accidents. Konforty, with degrees in sociology and political science from the Hebrew University, was serving as a project coordinator for Mehuyavut Ishit (personal commitment), aimed at ninth-graders. Ben-Dor, who joined the council after spending a year in rehab, began giving lectures at the schools involved in the project. Through their work together, the two became close friends. When the council closed down in 1998, they decided to use the expertise they had acquired to go it alone. The positive attitude they had encountered during their work for the council, which they attribute to their unique approach to road safety, encouraged them to continue. It is perhaps this "unique approach" - one of positive reinforcement, rather than preaching and reprimand - that has made Konforty and Ben-Dor hot commodities on the local lecture circuit, and Derech Haim a popular private enterprise, supplementing governmental bodies like the National Road Safety Authority, whose TV and radio commercials have been increasing in frequency and improving in catchy content. DURING AN hour-long interview at "Reviva VeSilia" (a trendy Ramat Hasharon cafe which they jokingly refer to as their "office"), Konforty, who lives in Givatayim, and Ben-Dor, a resident of Kiryat Ono, assert that traffic accidents are not some sort of force majeure, and stress a genuine faith in the public's ability to undergo a behavioral change on the roads that jibes with their behavior elsewhere. "Our point of departure is that people aren't stupid or bad," says Konforty in cheerful earnest. "And one of the nicest attributes of Israelis is their sense of solidarity and desire to help others. When an Israeli sees someone involved in an accident, he will stop to help. That's something you don't see in other countries." Asked why, then, so much rage is exhibited on the country's roads, Konforty provides a psychological explanation. "Aggressions emerge because the confines of a car feel like autonomous space, like a home," he says. "And when someone tries to invade that space, it makes [an Israeli] feel as though his home were being entered by a stranger who didn't knock on the door." Nor does he consider this a male attribute. "There are plenty of women who perceive someone cutting into their lane as just such a space-invader," he says. "They can be the nicest, most pleasant women under other circumstances - incredibly hospitable, for example. But the minute they're in the car, they suddenly lose their generosity of spirit." The root of this, Konforty says, is a "fundamental misconception of the act of driving, and of the way it is taught. Driving is something much more than operating a car. It is a realm in which people need to learn to control themselves just as much as they need to learn to control their vehicles. And they need to learn how to respect others on the road, just the way they do in other areas of their lives - such as when they give to the needy." As to how new drivers can "learn to control themselves" and care for other drivers the way they "give to the needy," Ben-Dor shrugs and smiles. "That's a problem," he says. "But it's connected to the taking of personal responsibility and to the examples emulated. By the time a teenager begins learning how to drive, he's already had years of influence from his parents, teachers and peers." He's also already had years of "hutzpa training," adds Konforty. "You know, the pushy, 'I'll show him' attitude" - an attitude, Konforty is convinced, that can be counteracted. "The idea behind Derech Haim is not to attack traits like hutzpa," he emphasizes. "If I come to you and tell you that your pushiness causes car accidents, you won't listen to another word I say. If, on the other hand, I suggest that you observe the drivers on the road who not only obey traffic laws, but who are considerate of others, you are more likely to see that it's possible to behave similarly." Another example of steering away from admonition is the way he tries to create awareness among parents. "Every morning, thousands of mothers and fathers are in a hurry to drop their toddlers off at daycare and get to work," he begins. "Many of these couples have two cars, and the baby-seat happens to be in the other car. Because it takes more than five minutes to unhook the seat from one car, hook it up in the other car and then strap the baby into it - while it only takes three minutes to drive to the nursery school - many people are lax in the procedure. None of these people wants to hurt his child. On the contrary. But he thinks it will be OK, because most of the time it is. But 20-something babies die every year because they weren't strapped in properly. I'm certain that any parent reading this is asking himself: 'Wait a minute - do I do that, too? Oh my God, I'm an idiot. I could have killed my baby!' "The same goes for older children," he continues. "An 18-year-old is required to fasten his belt in the back seat. And I want people to wear seat belts not because they fear getting tickets, but because they want to protect themselves. I mean, you don't abstain from rape because of the police. You don't commit rape because it is wrong and immoral. It's the same on the road. The incentive should not be fear of the law, but an understanding that it is wrong to endanger lives." The way to do this, say Konforty and Ben-Dor, is to alter public and peer-group perceptions of cultural concepts - to transform road safety into a "brand name" that's "the 'in' thing." "I want the 'cool kid' to be the one who drives the gang home after a party because he or she didn't drink any alcohol," he says, pointing to what he says has been a particularly successful National Road Safety Authority slogan, geared at young drivers: "Madlik mi she-maklik rishon" (The cool one is the one who buckles up first). THE FOCUS ON fashioning a new persona worth emulating, affirms Ben-Dor, is behind the Derech Haim philosophy of spending less time taking new drivers on tours of Ra'anana's Beit Levinstein rehabilitation center than on showing them a healthy path to societal recovery. "It's not that we think drivers shouldn't see up close the possible tragic consequences of accidents," Ben-Dor says, adjusting his wheelchair to position himself better at the table at which we are seated. "But aversion often produces the opposite of the desired effect, because the more that people view horrors, the more jaded they become to them. Like with terrorism." Growth, he pronounces, has to be inspired through motivation, not fear. "What we are striving for is balance," says Konforty. "We believe in showing the downside. That's why Omer [Ben-Dor] tells the tale of his accident. And people see he's in a wheelchair, after all. But that's not where real change is effected. Playing on the emotions goes only so far. Ultimately, it's cognizance that does it." Well, cognizance, and a little help from - what else? - the government. "Road safety has been more an issue on the national agenda in word than in deed," bemoans Ben-Dor. "It should be something that could make or break a politician's career," agrees Konforty, though quick to clarify, "This isn't a political issue, because there's no one who thinks traffic accidents are a good thing. Politics comes in when trying to combat the phenomenon." The examples of governmental intervention he gives are: the investment in better infrastructure; monetary incentives, such as discounts on vehicular safety devices and accident insurance; and the lowering of taxes to enable the purchase of newer cars. "LOOK AT the absurd dichotomy in our priorities," he says, emphatically. "Every time a little old lady enters a mall, her bags are searched for explosives. This is necessary. Yet, nobody bothers to find out whether that same little old lady has undergone her annual medical check-ups for her driver's license. And, while it is doubtful that she is about to set off a bomb, it is likely that she has hearing or sight problems that could lead to her killing someone with her car as she exits the parking lot." Indeed, he claims, senior citizens are involved in as many road accidents as young drivers. "And who's examining whether a person of a certain age is still able to drive?" he asks rhetorically. "Cutting certain corners," Omer sums up, is "a specialty in our culture." Another such "cultural specialty," Konforty concludes, is scapegoating. To illustrate, he raises the high-profile case of Dori Klagsbald, the lawyer charged with the April 11th deaths of mother and son Yvgenia and Arthur Wexler in a car crash in Tel Aviv. "His trial is going on now, and the whole country is incensed," he says. "I'm not defending him, and if he's proven guilty, he should serve his time. But anybody declaring that he should be locked up for life should remember that he could just as easily be in Klagsbald's place right now. Not necessarily due to drunkenness. But because maybe he was looking at his cellphone for a moment, just as a child jumped out into the street." Spending all our energy searching for scapegoats is counterproductive, he maintains, adding: "I want the same guy who writes angry letters-to-the-editor in which he pontificates about the punishment Klagsbald should receive to go to his child's school and see how road safety is being taught there."


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