Borderline Views: Driving school - The social equalizer

It is the only place where everybody comes together without any international or inter-religious strife or argument.

July 23, 2012 23:11
I am certainly an inexperienced driver

Woman driving 521. (photo credit: Illustrative photo)

The evening class is full. Thirty people including haredim (ultra-Orthodox), Beduin, owners of stalls in the local market, an accountant, and two lecturers from the university.

This is a true cross-section of Israeli society. But it is not the army, the institution which was meant to be the place where different people came together in a common cause. The army has never served that purpose, since Arabs and haredim have never served, while even those liable for military service are increasingly finding ways of not undertaking their army service.

This meeting, which takes place throughout the country on most evenings of the week, in schools and other public buildings, is the true equalizer. It is the only place where everybody comes together without any international or inter-religious strife or argument.

They don’t have any choice. This is a compulsory driving refresher course, which is a requirement for all those drivers who have accumulated a minimum of 12 points on their driving licenses for such mundane offenses as speeding, not stopping at a stop sign, not wearing a seat belt and other such misdemeanors.

To accumulate twelve points in any two-year period is not very difficult – two speeding offenses will do the trick.

Drivers who accumulate over 22 points are required to attend both a basic and an advanced course, while those accumulating over 36 points in a two-year period can have their license revoked and, in some cases, may even have to undergo a new driving test before being allowed back behind the wheel.

The course takes place on three consecutive nights. Participation requires the payment of an NIS 200 registration fee. There is no escape. My speeding points may have been five years old, but as the time for the renewal of my driving license is now approaching, the computer had caught up with me. If I wanted to renew my license and have the points erased from my record, I had no option but to pay up and attend.

The class basically divides into two. Those who sit at the back sheepishly, a bit embarrassed to be in this situation, remain silent, spending much of their time on their smartphones. The other half take an active role in the class, arguing with the teacher about his interpretation of the driving laws and regulations, demonstrating their proficiency in their knowledge of driving conditions, and generally using the opportunity to argue with one another about the realities of driving on Israel’s dangerous roads. Especially prominent in this category are the drivers of heavy trucks and large vehicles.

The teacher, who has taught this course week in, week out for many years is an immigrant from the Former Soviet Union. His knowledge of the driving laws and regulations is second to none, but his heavy accent and his inability to spell words correctly in Hebrew reduces his authority before this largely male, self-assured class of street-savvy Israeli citizens.

Attendance is strictly monitored, at both the beginning and the end of each evening. In the past, there were too many incidents of people coming to register at the beginning of the evening and then disappearing long before the four-hour session (two classes with a break in the middle) had ended.

But the Transportation Ministry, which now franchises the driving courses out to the Amit education system, insists on full attendance. It also sends anonymous inspectors to randomly check that the courses are being administered properly and that no shortcuts are being implemented. Anyone who, like this writer, sits at the back quietly minding his own business is immediately suspected of being an inspector and is mistrusted accordingly.

At the end of the course, there is a test. Each student is given a test sheet containing 20 multiple-choice questions and has to answer at least 12 correctly. The questions have all been discussed in class, and they also appear in the book which has been distributed at the beginning of the course, but few people have taken any of this seriously and have not paid much attention to the instructor or opened the book prior to the final evening.

The questions and the answers are pretty much a lottery, as they are worded in such a way as to confuse you, rather than clearly determine your knowledge of different driving regulations or situations which can develop while you are on the road.

Participants can choose to take the test in Hebrew, Arabic or Russian, but no English-language option is available.

The instructors take it seriously, handing out different tests to neighbors, for fear of copying, and ensuring that all books, computers and smartphones are put away.

The results of the test are not announced immediately.

The following day each participant receives an sms to inform him/her whether they have passed. You would have to be exceptionally stupid or completely unconversant with basic driving regulations not to achieve 12 out of 20, but just in case, you are eligible for a second and third attempt before having to undergo the entire course again.

There are memorable anecdotes. There is the 70-yearold Israeli who admonishes the Russian teacher by continuously telling him that he drove lorries in the Dead Sea region back in the 1950s, before the teacher was born.

There is the Orthodox woman who informs the class that no amount of adherence to the driving regulations will keep you safe if you do not recite the prayer for travelling each time you get into your car. And there is the Beduin semi-trailer driver who regales us with tales of crashing into camels on the roads of the Negev in the dead of the night, and also offers tips concerning the best places to stop for refreshments along the Arava road to Eilat, and the discounts to be had if only his name is mentioned to the restaurant owner.

Compulsory driving school for penalized drivers has become a global phenomenon. But this one, held in a school in a Beersheba neighborhood, is a truly unique Israeli experience. It is the one great equalizer in Israeli society. It should be obligatory for all first-year anthropology students – understanding the complexity and diversity of Israeli society in the field rather than from the sterile classroom behind the gated confines of the nearby university campus.

At the end of the day, we have all learned something new about our driving habits. We have refreshed our knowledge about old regulations which we have forgotten or taken for granted, and learned some of the new regulations which have been introduced in recent years and about which we are not always aware. And if, as a result of our enforced participation in the course, we pay a bit more attention to our speedometers, or are more careful about obeying the road signs, we will hopefully contribute to making the country’s roads a little bit safer.

The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the international journal Geopolitics, the views expressed are his alone.

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