Road-safety pioneer Prof. Gerald Ben-David died suddenly last week at the age of
83. Gerry, as he was known, was always in a hurry, obsessed every minute of the
day and night with ridding Israel of its horrible epidemic of road
His last e-mail messages from his iconic address email@example.com on the speed-camera program in Barcelona is still fresh in our
His work is unfinished.
in nuclear physics at the University of London, after coming to Israel served as
a professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University and as one of the first members of
Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission.
In the early 1970s he decided to
devote all his energies and formidable scientific talents, 16 hours a day, to
injury prevention following the death of four of his students at
Working out of his lab at Nahal Sorek, he developed one of the
world’s first simple prototypes for detection and deterrence of speeding and
tailgating, using two cables with pressure sensors placed on a road, and
cameras. His work in early years was supported by the late Sidney Corob who was
a true partner in the whole story.
Later, the technology evolved into the
Marom System , which he and I, together with Costa Rican colleagues, introduced
in Costa Rica with a grant from USAID. The system, which was the forerunner of
modern speed-camera networks, fed information into a central database which
compiled a profile of all vehicles and their speeds, and prints out and mails
tickets to violators.
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Today, worldwide, speed camera networks have
reduced death tolls by 50 percent, and the income they generate more than pays
for their operation.
It was Ben-David’s genius – and curse – to be two
steps ahead of his time, and he encountered much resistance. His predicament was
that of the forgotten genius who invented the fax, I am told, in the 19th
century, but no one was interested in the product. For all too long, Ben-David’s
ideas and the speed camera and backup database system which he developed at the
Jerusalem College of Technology shared the fate of the 19th-century
Ben-David, working with one speed camera in Netanya, saved 15 lives,
before his project was abruptly canceled by the Transportation Ministry, He
himself funded much of the operation of the project out of his own
With this small study, he showed that the numbers could go down –
to close to zero – a real-life proof of cause and effect – an experimental
intervention, showing that killing speed saved lives.
energy and drive produced a spinoff – an entire generation of scientists and
activists in injury prevention in Metuna – The Organization For Road Safety and
other voluntary organizations which did a great deal over a period of 20 to 30
years on tiny budgets.
Chuck Greenblatt introduced me to Ben-David in
1974, and from the moment we met, I realized he had the equivalent in road
safety to population-based health screening and detection – i.e. going out and
looking for the causal predictors of risk in the population.
Just as we
screen everyone for blood pressure without waiting for the patient to come to
the doctor, so speed cameras screened everyone for speed, because kinetic energy
is the pathogen in road energy.
Zelda Harris and Ivan Pope from Metuna
and Jaakov Adler from Anashim BeAdom, and Zvi Weinberger – himself a physicist
of stature, worked tirelessly to promote Ben-David’s ideas. I was the
epidemiologist, working to structure the findings into scientific tables which
hammered home the message that he was achieving results.
effect of all this energy was enormous: Three conferences with British experts
on road safety, a reciprocal visit by Yitzhak Levy, then minister of
transportation, which advanced speed bumps, and educating large numbers of
officials in the police and the Transportation Ministry on the British
experience with speed cameras.
It was only in the last five or six years
that the ministries finally accorded Ben-David the respect he deserved. For us,
he was the admor
, the master. But let it be told to all the story of Gerry’s
passionate commitment to scientific truth and justice. Following the Habonim
bus-train crash in June 1985, in which 22 people were killed – 19 middle-school
pupils, a teacher, the bus driver and a parent, a government investigation
commission blamed the driver, a woman, for not stopping in time at the
Ben-David, using simple algebra and physics, proved that the
time interval between when the train’s light could be seen and the whistle could
be heard was less than the interval required for the entire bus to traverse the
In other words, this was a crash programmed to happen by a flawed
design system which ignored the failsafe principles that underline basic
engineering. The 22 deaths were, in Ben-David’s opinion, a consequence of the
junk ethics and junk science of so many road safety experts. It is only in the
last few years that we have gates at all train crossings.
All of us who
knew him can tell stories about Ben- David’s dry British wit and somewhat
There was a poster on the door of his lab at Nahal
Sorek saying that nothing adds more to the force of a scientific statement than
if spoken with a slightly clipped British accent. Once while staying with his
family on a hot, humid summer night, I was relaxing, shirt unbuttoned, shoes
off, feet up on a footrest.
Ben-David was walking around restlessly in
proper dress trousers, white shirt and tie, papers and pen in
“Gerry,” I said, “take off your tie. Make yourself at
Without batting an eyelash, he said: I am.
For a quarter of
a century, every Saturday night, I could time the precise end of Shabbat by
Ben-David’s call two minutes later.
, it’s Gerry here, can you
spare a minute?” As Gerry himself said, there are times when it looks like we
are going from Vision Zero to Zero Vision.
Gerry, we cannot afford to
spare a minute. We will work to implement your legacy: Vision Zero – no road
Ben-David is survived by son Mickey, daughters Tali and Debby and
their spouses and by his grandchildren, all of whom adored him. Irene, his
beloved wife, died several years ago.
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