Tribute: Remembering Gerry Ben-David

UK-born scientist worked for decades toward Vision Zero – no road deaths.

By ELIHU RICHTER
September 11, 2011 03:57
Shapes, contrasting textures,and sense of movement

road sign 311. (photo credit: Tom Langford)

 
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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 deaths.

His last e-mail messages from his iconic address drivsafe@netvision.net.il on the speed-camera program in Barcelona is still fresh in our electronic in-baskets.

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His work is unfinished.

Ben-David, educated 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 Bar-Ilan.

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 fax.

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 pocket.

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.

Ben-David’s work, 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.

The ripple 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 crossing.

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 tracks.

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 eccentric manner.

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 hand.

“Gerry,” I said, “take off your tie. Make yourself at home.”

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.

Shavua tov, 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 deaths.

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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