'I only had one beer, tops'

The Post's Ben Hartman tags along with a police cruiser on one of the most busiest nights on the calendar for revelers.

June 30, 2013 02:07
A traffic officer checks a driver in Tel Aviv

A traffic officer checks a driver in Tel Aviv 370. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

Like Independence Day or Purim, White Night is a big night for the Traffic Police, as people drive into the big city from Holon, Rishon Lezion, Petah Tikva and beyond (Israel’s version of the New York’s “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 launched by the Traffic Police to fight drunk and reckless driving on the nation’s roads, at the beginning of summer vacation.

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 on 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 on Thursday night, during those foggy hours between 2 and 5 a.m.

Ch.-Insp. Eran Mazuz, deputy head of the National Motorcycle Police unit, is the officer in charge of the 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 do a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS) test, then, if the driver tests positive for having imbibed alcohol, he’s given a Breathalyzer. That test is performed by blowing into a large metal box called the Drager Alcotest 7110.

According to procedure, police 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 the driver is on the borderline and can do some calisthenics on the roadside, or has a heavy pancake breakfast on hand.

Unfortunately, police rarely do field sobriety tests, so no one was forced to walk a straight line or recite the alef bet backwards. It appears police stick to machine tests and their hefty paper trails, because those are 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 Sgt. Erez Kupperman, a 14- year-veteran of the Traffic Police.

Kupperman, a bald, hulking former officer in the Yasam Special Patrol Unit, looks like he spends his spare time as an Olympic shotputter.

Kupperman, who somehow fits on a police-issue Yamaha Super Ténéré 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 cellphones 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, although 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 in evidence on Thursday night.

In addition to the Post, a Channel 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 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

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 his way to spend the night in the drunk tank.

The hipster, a 25-year-old employee of a Tel Aviv cafe, might 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 at Israel Police Headquarters in Jerusalem.

Those who can’t beat the charge face a minimum 30-day suspended license and 30-days impounded vehicle, until they have their court date. In court, the judge can extend the suspension for much longer, and can assign jail time.

Still, in what is a bit surprising for those from the US, no one is arrested and taken to jail at once.

As one cameraman at the roadblock said on 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 – the faux hawk heading off for the horizon with a summons in hand, hailing a cab to take him back to Rishon Lezion. When the officer who ticketed him was asked for a run-down of the incident, he said officers saw the man driving toward 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 then said he actually had one beer, they always say they only had one beer.”

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