Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz marked the end of the decade with optimism as he revealed to reporters on Thursday the annual figures on road safety. According to official police numbers, fewer people died in traffic accidents in Israel in 2009 than in any of the last 35 years.
"It is hard to speak in terms of success, when even one person dies, but we have shown an unprecedented drop in fatalities and we are pleased with that," he said.
Katz said he would work on continuing the trend in 2010, by increasing police enforcement, improving infrastructure and focusing on accident-prone sectors.
Three hundred forty-eight deaths resulted from traffic accidents in 2009, according to police figures, down from 449 in 2008, equaling a 22 percent drop.
The number of deaths per kilometer driven, which Katz characterized as "the golden number," dropped to 6.4 deaths per million kilometers, from 9.1 in 2008, a fall of 29.7%. This puts Israel between Denmark and New Zealand in the ranking of developed countries and ahead of countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia and Finland.
The reduction in fatalities continues the tendency of recent years, which has seen deaths fall from a peak of 709 in 1994. Katz credited the decrease in accidents and fatalities to a combination of factors.
"I think that the responsibility rests on all those who work in the ministry and in cooperation with it... Every agency does its utmost and my job is to make sure that everything is operating smoothly and to fix problems when necessary. The joint actions of those responsible for road infrastructures, the National Road Safety Authority, the enforcement carried out by the police and the bodies in charge of licensing both vehicles and drivers, are all responsible for the improvements," Katz said.
Katz said that as chairman of the interministerial committee on road safety, he would work together with Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch to ensure greater police presence on the roads and increased police authorities, as well as to ensure violators would receive harsher sentences.
Katz announced the introduction of 85 additional traffic police cars and his plans to put more traffic court judges on the bench.
Traffic Police chief Cmdr. Avi Ben-Hamo identified three main sectors that still needed improvement: pedestrians, young drivers and members of the non-Jewish sector.
Drunk drivers are harder to come by these days, Ben-Hamo said. The police tested 530,000 people for alcohol levels in 2009, and 11,216 of them tested positive.
"The relatively small amount of drunk drivers proves that deterrence and enforcement are effective means to prevent people from driving. When I join patrols, I speak to the young people and they tell me that they are aware that the police is looking for drunk drivers and to make sure to have a designated driver in the car."
Ben-Hamo said that in 2010, the police plans to conduct a million breathalyzer tests.
The police last year revoked the licenses of 29,750 drivers in 2009 and confiscated 10,650 vehicles for periods of 30-90 days for traffic violations.
The Israel National Roads Company invested NIS 200 million in improving road infrastructure, taking care of 65 junctions and road sections that were identified as prone to accidents. General manager Alex Viznitzer said it planned to invest a further NIS 250m. in 2010 to treat 61 at-risk locations.
Overseeing all the plans will be the Transportation Ministry's new director-general, former Prisons Service head Yaakov Ganot. Katz said it was up to Ganot to make sure that all the systems were operating properly, although the responsibility ultimately rested with him as minister.
One of Ganot's main tasks will be the proper operation of the National Road Safety Authority. The agency has been functioning without a general-director for months after the previous head resigned. Katz said a committee would be set up to find a replacement and that meanwhile the authority would be under the management of Ganot.