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Two hundred drivers-to-be are taking part in a six-month pilot course in Kfar Saba designed to improve the way Israelis are trained before being turned loose on the nation's roads.
The pilot program, run by Milan - The Center for Driving Education, in conjunction with researchers from Tel Aviv University, provides a comprehensive immersion in driving theory, encompassing practical and theoretical elements of the driving experience, Dani Shtruzman, an adviser to the Transportation Ministry on the project, told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend.
If the course proves successful, he said, the ministry hopes to replace the current 28 hours of instruction that new drivers receive with a new framework based on the 24-hour Milan curriculum, as it provides a more comprehensive theory of driving.
Students study driving's behavioral and psychological elements, and receive practical and theoretical training in urban and rural driving for all types of weather, Shtruzman said.
Each student's performance is compared to that of the other 200 students being trained under the current system, said Daron Kashuv, chairman of the ministry committee evaluating Milan.
Asked why, after 28 lessons, Israeli drivers still have a reputation of being among the most reckless in the world, Kashuv said: "The truth of the matter is that road manners come from habits at school and home. If you are rude in school, you are rude on the roads. Therefore, we cannot change the current situation without addressing the root problem associated with behavior among Israelis. This is a long-term process; no single fix will solve the problem. We will have to teach Israelis to respect each other and not to 'fight' on the road."
The stressful nature of Israeli life is the main cause of bad driving, Avi Gadon, an instructor from the Ramzor driving school, told the Post last week. The security situation makes people rush and take risks when they drive, he said. Also, there is a lot of "testosterone" on the road, especially nowadays when a large percentage of Israeli drivers are young, he added.
Gadon's student, a 47-year-old haredi, said his rabbi generally advises against getting a driving license until age 30. Arriving at a crosswalk, the student, seeing a young girl crossing on her own, slowed down to stop, but a bit too much to the left of the lane. Gadon took control of the car, turning the wheel to the right.
"In Israel, you cannot take a chance like that," Gadon said. "People behind you, if given space, will in many cases try to pass you. They will not see the little girl. She will be barely visible due to her size."
Since 1948, 25 percent more people have died from traffic accidents than from wars and terrorist attacks, Gadon said. He said the most common mistakes drivers make are running red lights, blocking intersections and shifting lanes without paying attention. It all stems, he said, from a mentality that is summed up in a common Hebrew saying: "It won't happen to me."
"We teach them very well," Gadon said about drivers education in Israel. "Schools' tests are designed so that the instructor is able to tell whether any student is ready for the road."
But the way students behave with the instructor on the day of the driving test and what they do when they get into their vehicles without an instructor are totally different in most cases, he added.
Only 10% of students are ready for the test by the 28th lesson, Gadon said, depending on age and experience. Since a majority use cars with manual transmission, it takes more than half of the required 28 lessons to master driving, and only then can students focus on maneuvering in traffic, he said.
The quality of driving in Israel is not much different than in the rest of the Western world, Michael Cale, a traffic psychologist with the Or Yarok traffic safety organization, told the Post.
But "disregard for traffic laws is generally characteristic of Israeli drivers," he said, attributing it, in part, to the court system, which "is lax on traffic violations."
"Generally, I don't buy the causal argument that the roads are bad," Cale said. "My response to it is that then the drivers adapt to the road conditions."
Drunk driving is a relatively new phenomenon in Israel, he said.
Another problem that influences drivers' behavior is the way the police conduct themselves on the roads, Cale said.
"If you pay close attention to police driving, it will immediately become apparent that they violate traffic rules," he said.
But according to Traffic Police spokesman Daron Bemano, "The police always observe traffic regulations, and when there are violations, the perpetrators are punished harshly."
Cale said public safety campaigns in Israel have been more destructive then constructive.
"Look at how the Australians, the world leaders in reducing traffic fatalities, approach the problem," he said. "We can see there is a combination of efforts from the government and the police. They supplement each other."
The Australian safety campaigns are combined with rigorous police patrols, Cale said. A driver in south Australia will, on average, take a Breathalyzer test twice a year, he said, but in Israel, we have seen only scare tactics, until now.
Cale said Israel needs more rigorous law enforcement on the roads, down to the smallest violations.